The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume I, Number 3, Pages 30-40
Summer, 1976

Mother Joseph, Great Humanitarian of the Northwest

John C. Brougher

John C. Brougher is a doctor living in Vancouver, Washington.

Esther Pariseau, who would one day be known as Mother Joseph, was born April 16th, 1823, in a stone farmhouse at Saint Elzear in a French Canadian settlement of Quebec. She was the third child to occupy the Pariseau cradle. This ruddy little creature with black hair and well defined features rested quietly for a day within the warm stone cottage. The following day she was bundled up securely against the raw spring weather for a three mile ride and taken to the parish house of Saint Martin de Laval for baptism.

Her father was regarded as a skilled craftsman. In his carriage shop, he did a brisk business in supplying the neighboring villages with vehicles and carriage parts. To Esther and the two elder children the shop and adjacent sheds were the abode of enchantment and enterprise. By the age of twelve she knew the name and purpose of each of her father's tools. She learned to use the knife, the saw, the chisel, the draw knife and others used by her father. From this association with various woods and tools used by the father, she learned much that would be useful to her in the distant northwest where she would be designing buildings.

At the age of seventeen she entered a boarding school opened in 1840 by Mademmoiselle Bruyere. Esther was a willing student, adept at sewing, spinning, housework, and making candles. At the age of twenty she decided to become a nun, and on December 26, 1843, her father took her to the convent of the order of the "Association of Charity" under the direction of Madame Emelie Gamelin. They were first known as the "Sisters of Charity, Servants of the Poor," but later became known as the Sisters of Providence.

Esther's father told Sister Gamelin, "If you will accept her into your company, you will find her able to give you valuable assistance. She can cook and sew and spin and do all manner of housework well. She has learned carpentry from me and can handle tools as well as I can. Moreover, she can plan and supervise the work of others, and I assure you, Madame, she will some day make a very good Superior." Joseph Pariseau proved to be an accurate prophet. Esther's next few years were spent in study, caring for the sick, and the poor, as well as assisting in the supervision of the kitchen, bakery, garden and carpentry shops. She became familiar with weaving and dyeing, the making of soap and the laundry. For her time, she was considered well educated.

In personal appearance, she was tall, sturdy, large framed, not pretty, but with a pleasant face. Her complexion inclined to the dark, sometimes ruddy. She had comely, deep set eyes of a blue shade, a large nose, straight, firm mouth, a deep alto voice, soft but positive, at times stern but kindly. Her walk was firm. She always appeared businesslike. Seldom did she exhibit even a shadow of fear. She was a woman of determined character.


Mother Joseph established no less than eleven hospitals,
seven academies, five Indian schools and two orphanages.


When an urgent appeal came to Sister Gamelin from Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet of Vancouver, Washington, calling for Sisters to serve in this primitive village, Sister Joseph of the Sacred Heart, as Esther chose to be named, was one of the five picked to go on the 6,000 mile trip, accompanied by Bishop Blanchet. (Ed. Note: Since history honors her many productive years as a Superior, she will be referred to as Mother Joseph in the following pages.) The Blanchet Party left the Mother House in Montreal on November 3, 1856, and sailed from New York, three days later, on the steamer S.S. Illinois. Upon arriving at Panama, they crossed the Isthmus on a narrow gauge railroad, and took passage on the steamer Golden Age to San Francisco, arriving there on December 3. Two days later, they were on their way north aboard the Brother Jonathan. After a stormy voyage of three days, They reached their destination, Vancouver, Washington, December 8, 1856.

The first task that faced them was finding suitable quarters to live in. Upon their arrival, finding there was not even a cabin available for them, they spent their first night in the stuffy and unheated attic of Bishop Blanchet's house. Then they moved into a room 10 x 16 feet off the kitchen of the Bishop's house. Carpenter that she was Mother Joseph set out with hammer and saw making five narrow bunks with straw mattresses, the straw coming from the army post. Boxes served as chairs and were nailed to the walls as places to keep dishes and other possessions. Such were their meager surroundings. This for the time being became their dormitory, rectory, and community room.

Original St. Joseph's Hospital opened in 1858

The United States census for 1850 records ninety-five houses in Clark County. Fifteen were in the Military Post, and the others were in or close to Vancouver. Included in these were the homes of a few fur traders and their families, the squalid dwellings of a number of Indians, and "Kanaka Village" where some of the Hawaiians, French Canadians, and servants of the Hudson's Bay Company were still living. Four Vancouver physicians were also listed in the census. By 1856, the year the Sisters arrived, Vancouver numbered an estimated four to five hundred whites and an uncounted number of Indians.

By February 22, 1857, the Sisters had acquired a small building 16 x 24 feet as their new quarters. It had four windows and a glass-paneled door. A stairway led to the attic which served as the dormitory. A partition walled off a small room which they used, temporarily, for the chapel. The lumber used for the buildings that Mother Joseph and her colleagues would need for their Mission came largely from the Hudson's Bay buildings that were being dismantled by the U.S. Military Post.

On March 16, 1857, Mother Joseph accepted her first student, an orphan, Emily Lake, who had been left on her doorstep. The following month, another orphan, an infant boy, was thrust into her arms. These events led to the founding of the first Catholic school and the first orphanage in the Pacific Northwest.

Mother Joseph accepted children of all faiths and races and never tried to force her faith on those whose parents were not Catholics. A former Vancouver resident, Walter Horton, a staunch Methodist, who died a number of years ago, was one of Mother Joseph's orphans, and throughout his life, he held only the fondest of memories of the years spent in her orphanage and school. She especially loved the orphan boys and girls, and would reward them for their help on the farm or garden premises. Busy as she was, she always had time to chat and play with them as well as listen to their problems. She trained some of the older boys to become bakers and engineers.

Money was always a problem to the fledgling community. To secure funds for their work, the Sisters found it necessary to travel great distances into the mining areas of Idaho and Montana by foot, horseback, and canoe to obtain gifts of charity. They even went into the mining shafts at considerable risk to beg for gold and silver from the miners. On one trip they were surrounded by an Indian war party. When the Indians saw the crosses, they gave signs of friendship and respect to the women who had always manifested kindness and love to them.

Another trip took her and Sister Catherine to Virginia City, Montana, and the "diggins" of Alder Gulch. This region was infested with outlaws and bandits. On one occasion, Mother Joseph was confronted by bandits in a stage coach holdup, but she outwitted the gunman and saved her bag of money for the mission.

She described one of her tours into the mining camps of Idaho in the following manner: She and a colleague, accompanied by a priest and Indian guide, penetrated the wilderness on horseback. They camped wherever, "water, grass, and trees" afforded shelter. Many nights they slept in wet clothes, "lying down in the mud as close to the fire as possible." One evening they were surrounded by a pack of some fifty wolves who were eventually frightened away by the fire. As a result of this tour, they acquired $3,000, which they took to the express office at Idaho City for safekeeping and shipment. This was their reward for their six weeks of hardships in travel from mine to mine, down one shaft and then another, into the camps and the Colorado underground excavations. Later, they also went into the Fraser River country in Canada seeking funds for their work.

Eventually the Sisters extended the purpose of their mission to include medical aid. This development was begun when a young unbaptized stranger, John Lloyd, 24 years old and in the last stages of tuberculosis, begged the Sisters for admission at the Providence. The whole town pleaded his cause, and it was evident that a hospital was a necessity. Because of the urgent need, a temporary hospital was opened when Mother Joseph offered the town a part of the building which she was planning to use as a laundry and bakery. The building was 16 x 20 feet and was 8 feet high. It had no partitions. Father Brouillet, the Vicar General, organized an assembly of local women called an "Association of Charity." To his appeal, 29 of the most respectable persons of Vancouver responded. Of these, about 12 were Catholics, and the others were Episcopalians, Methodists and Jews. The Vancouver Ladies of Charity assembled for the first time April 6, 1858, and began the work of bringing to the Northwest its first private hospital.

Mother Joseph of the Sisters of Providence

Courtesy of Sister of Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington

Mother Joseph and one of her workmen put up the hospital's ceiling of rough lumber. The walls and ceilings were first covered with a lightweight muslin fabric and then with a simple wallpaper. The first furnishings consisted of four beds with four accompanying bedside tables and chairs, purchased with money given sby the women of the "Association of Charity" which they had collected from dues of 12.5 cents per week. The Association met twice a month, on Wednesdays, for sewing, in this way providing for the needs of patients unable to pay for hospital care. In addition to these tasks, these same women also installed a pharmacy. During the following years Mother Joseph and her staff of Sisters were able to secure enough gift money to feed and clothe the orphans, care for a hundred children in the Mission school, and provide medical care for an average of forty patients in St. Joseph's hospital. The patients were charged $1.00 a day. This included their medicine, food, laundry and whiskey (if ordered by the physician). But many poor patients were not even charged the low fee. The original three ledgers used in the hospital are now in the Providence Archives in Seattle. The earliest ledger used by the hospital is dated May 13, 1858, to September 18, 1881. A statement on the front page gives this interesting summary. "Six hundred and thirty patients have been admitted into the hospital and upwards of 490 have been taken free of all charge."


A story is told of her finding a chimney built on a wood foundation...
She went out at night, knocked down the chimney and replaced it herself on a solid foundation.

In their first years the Sisters were not legally incorporated. Then in December, 1858, Father Brouillet had a bill presented to the territorial legislature in Olympia for the incorporation of the "Sisters of Charity of Providence". The bill was defeated but later reintroduced by Father Rossi and passed. Mother Joseph was named as forming the corporation, with the authority to take into partnership those Sisters whom she so desired. The legal title was "The Sisters of Charity of Providence in the Territory of Washington." This was the second corporation in the Territory, the Northern Pacific Railroad being the first.

In all of her activities Mother Joseph sought stability and permanance. She was a great advocate of stone and brick buildings, and she could not tolerate sloppy or poorly done work. A story is told of her finding a chimney built on a wood foundation, when she had instructed the men to build on an earth foundation. She went out at night, knocked down the chimney and replaced it herself on a solid foundation.

Providence Academy, Vancouver, Washington, was the cradle of educational institutions in the Northwest. In 1873, Mother Joseph replaced the former small Academy with a substantial and beautiful structure, for which she drew the plans and was the construction overseer. It was a gigantic structure, probably the largest brick building in the State of Washington, being three stories high and covering about two acres of ground. Under one roof it would provide the provincial house, novitiate, boarding school, orphanage, day school, studio, workshop and chapel. Mother Joseph is said to have asked Mr. Lowell Hidden, for help in making the bricks for the Academy. There were no brickyards in town, but Mr. Hidden with the help of his partner, Mr. Ginder, both of whom had worked in brickyards, made one million bricks by hand for this building.

Providence Academy, established by Mother Joseph in 1856 at Fort Vancouver

Courtesy of Sister of Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington

Hospitals and schools under Mother Joseph's indomitable enthusiasm spread from the small Mission on the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver to other cities. The first to branch out from Vancouver was St. Vincents Academy, Walla Walla, Washington in 1864. St. Joseph Academy was founded in Yakima in 1875, followed by schools and hospitals in Seattle in 1877, Olympia in 1881, and Spokane in 1886. Her work also extended into Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Canada. Many of these institutions and hospitals have been replaced by larger ones.

Mother Joseph was interested in the Indians and was mindful of their needs. She considered them victims of exploitation and sought to help them by establishing missions for their benefit, winning much love from them. The first mission was started on the Puget Sound Reservation of Tulalip in 1868. In another five years a school and mission was set up at Colville. Probably the most successful was in De Smet, Idaho, established in 1878.

Saint Vincent's Hospital in Portland, Oregon's first hospital, is another illustration of Mother Joseph's ability and indefatigable efforts. In 1874 she accepted the gifts of land and $1,000 from the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Portland. She then helped raise the other money which was necessary to build the hospital. But more than this, she personally designed the building and labored on its construction. Much of the woodwork and the statue of St. Vincent which stood over the door for many years were the work of Mother Joseph. She was as familiar with carpenter tools, a box of which she kept expressly for her own use, as she was with a sewing machine or needle.

On July 18,1875, St. Vincent's was opened with appropriate dedication ceremonies. "Thousands of citizens, including Portland officialdom, turned out for the affair marked by a gala street celebration and public inspection of the new building." "The weather was beautiful," wrote Sister Peter. "The whole city of Portland was excited. At three o'clock in the afternoon the band began to play. A long procession of men in uniform of various associations, carrying banners made their way toward our humble dwelling that we had decorated for the occasion."

In 1876, when St. Vincent's was having financial problems, the Sisters decided to follow the example of Mother Joseph's "begging tours" to obtain money for their hospital. These tours had saved Vancouver's St. Joseph Hospital more than once when their finances were in a critical condition. Mother Joseph also had the continuing advantage of being able to obtain money from the men at the Army Post in Vancouver. General William Harney and Colonel George Wright received her with courtesy, and along with the soldiers and their families donated to her mission and hospital there.

By 1883, St. Vincent's hospital was surrounded by shops and factories with their noise and polluted air. Flood waters also encroached on the property. Mother Mary Theresa, Superior of the hospital, felt a new location must be found. In 1888, she purchased a five acre tract on Portland's West Hills along Westover road.

Mother Joseph again spent many hours over her drawing board designing this large and spectacular new hospital. These were to be only the preliminary plans. Another architect, Mr. J. F. Krumbein, was to further develop them. Her original design was followed, however, and on July 14,1895, the dedication drew thousands of dignitaries, church leaders and people from all walks of life to the hillside with its panoramic view. This beautiful new hospital was a far cry from the pioneer four bed St. Joseph Hospital, formerly the Providence Laundry and Bakery, founded in Vancouver in 1858.

This review of Mother Joseph's dedicated life of service to the poor and needy in a harsh environment of the mid-nineteenth century brings to our attention and appreciation the life of an individual who surrendered to the ideal of helping others even at great pain and hardship to herself. Her consecration to God and her church played a great part in her motivation for service. She not only started schools, hospitals and orphanages, but was influential in passing the same spirit of service on to the pioneer physician, the nurse, the school teacher and the neighbor who saw someone in need.

Mother Joseph was blessed with many friends. The officers and men in Vancouver Barracks, Dr. David Wall and his family, as well as many people scattered up and down the Columbia, helped her in whatever way they could. They all appreciated what she was doing.


The only substantial criticism ever made of Mother Joseph appears to be
that she sometimes tried to do things too quickly for her slower associates.


The only substantial criticism ever made of Mother Joseph appears to be that she sometimes tried to do things too quickly for her slower associates. The Bishop of Nisqually heard echoes of the small discontents and friction in Vancouver and wrote to the Bishop of Montreal, "Mother Joseph is very pious, zealous, and all afire for the good works of Providence, but she is also too hasty."

Her strong characteristics, however, far outweighed her weaknesses. Mother Joseph established no less than eleven hospitals, seven academies, five Indian schools and two orphanages. Her labors of love are still bearing fruit in the present states of Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho, and British Columbia.

The carvings and plaster molding in both the chapel of Providence Academy and St. James Church, originally St. James Cathedral, are outstanding examples of her ability and her love of beauty. In 1953 the American Institute of Architects acclaimed Mother Joseph as te Pacific Northwests' first architect. For her beautiful carvings and work with wood, she was honored by the West Coast Lumberman's Association as the first Northwest artist to work in wood.

She may well be recognized as the first great humanitarian in the Pacific Northwest. Her contribution to the sick, the destitute, the aged and the homeless gave her a place in history that is nearly unique. Mother Joseph is an individual, who by her works throughout the State of Washington, could be claimed by fourteen cities as a benefactor, untold numbers of people have inherited the fruit of her efforts.

In March, 1901, she put aside all thoughts of repairs and debts and entered her last retreat. She died January 19, 1902, in her 79th year of life. Her dying words were "Sisters, whatever concerns the poor is always our affair," a very fitting epitaph. A plain cross marks her grave with other Sisters at St. James Acres, Vancouver, Washington.