On April 16, 1999, Washington Governor Gary Locke signs into law SB 5734, which sets forth April 16 as Mother Joseph Day and September 4 as Marcus Whitman Day. These days, which are not legal holidays, honor two notable individuals in Washington history.
Mother Joseph and Marcus Whitman
Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, born Esther Pariseau on April 16, 1823, in Saint Elzear, Quebec, Canada, was one of the founders of the Sisters of Providence in the Northwest. On December 8, 1856, Mother Joseph and four other Sisters of Providence from Montreal arrived at Fort Vancouver to begin their mission of caring for the sick, the aged, and the poor; educating the young; and housing the orphaned. Mother Joseph died of cancer on January 19, 1902. Upon news of her death, Canon Alfred Archambault of Montreal wrote, "In her the Western missions lose their foundress, their guide, their support. God alone knows what all those missions owe to Mother Joseph" (The Bell and the River, 268).
Marcus Whitman was born on September 4, 1802, in Rushville, New York. A Presbyterian missionary and a physician, Whitman established a mission at Waiilatpu on the Walla Walla River in October 1836. The mission became an important resting place for wagon trains on the Oregon Trail. On November 29, 1847, Whitman, his wife Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, and 11 others at the mission were killed by a small group of Cayuse Indians.
Making Their Mark in Olympia
SB 5734, initially titled "An act relating to Mother Joseph Day," was in many ways the brainchild of a sixth-grade EXCEL class of 27 students from the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Clark County. The students wanted to "make a difference," said their teacher, Irene Holbrook, by bringing public attention to the accomplishments and contributions of Mother Joseph (Email dated February 5, 1999, Providence Archives). The class came up with three different projects that it could undertake to honor this remarkable Sister of Providence. The first was a new bench at Saint James Cemetery in Vancouver, where Mother Joseph is buried. The second was a plaque in her memory at Southwest Washington Medical Center, formerly St. Joseph's Hospital (1858-1967), also loacted in Vancouver. The third, and most daunting, was to have April 16 designated as Mother Joseph Day in the state of Washington.
With the help of Senator Al Bauer, the sixth-graders set out to make their mark in Olympia. On March 1, 1999, four students from the class made a 15-minute presentation before the Senate State and Local Government Committee, complete with handouts and a Power Point slideshow, requesting support for the bill, which was being sponsored by Senator Bauer. Following the presentation, the Senators unanimously voted the bill out of committee. Committee Chair, Senator Julia Patterson, said: "That was the greatest public testimony I have heard, in six years in the Legislature. There are people being paid lots of money for this, and you've got them beat" (Columbian, March 2, 1999).
On March 9, 1999, the Mother Joseph Day bill was debated on the Senate floor. Among the Senators who spoke in favor of the bill, Senator Alex Deccio (1922-2011) commented on the good work done by Providence Health System and Senator Margarita Prentice talked about Mother Joseph as a real person, her business savvies and her perseverance in everything she did. The Senate passed the bill 49-0. Following the vote, Sister of Providence Karin Dufault, Chair of the Board for Providence Health System, who was dressed in the traditional Sisters of Providence habit, addressed the Senate from the Rostrum, thanking the members and the children who brought the bill forward.
The bill went before the House of Representatives on April 9, 1999, where, for the first time since its inception, it faced some opposition. Several Republican Representatives appeared uncomfortable changing the statutes to honor a single individual. Their proposed solution was to amend the bill to include another one of Washington's notable figures who, alongside Mother Joseph, represent the state in the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C.: Marcus Whitman. The amendment, sponsored by Representative Jim Dunn, read: "The legislature declares that the sixteenth day of April shall be recognized as Mother Joseph day and the fourth day of September as Marcus Whitman day but neither shall be considered legal holidays for any purpose." The House unanimously passed the bill, as amended, 93-0, with 5 absent.
With the unanticipated amendment, the sixth-graders were truly learning what politics and the legislative process were all about. As Senator Bauer said, "the nature of the game is the art of compromise. That gives them a whole new look at how convoluted some things are up here" (Columbia, April 12, 1999).
The amendment also meant that the bill would probably not be ready for the Governor's signature on or before April 16th, as Mother Joseph Day supporters had hoped, since the new version of the bill still had to be approved by the Senate. However, Senators Bauer and Deccio were able to convince the Senate floor leader to take the Mother Joseph Day and Marcus Whitman Day bill out of order and, on April 12, 1999, the Senate unanimously concurred with the House amendment, 48 to 0.
On Mother Joseph Day
On the morning of April 16, 1999, the House of Representatives adopted a Resolution to "recognize and honor Mother Joseph on the occasion of the 176th year of her birth" (House Resolution No. 99-4673). Then, at 2:30 that afternoon, in the presence of a large delegation from the Sisters of Providence and Providence Health System, members of the House and the Senate and most importantly the sixth-grade EXCEL class from Evergreen School District, Governor Gary Locke signed the Mother Joseph Day and Marcus Whitman Day bill into law. The Governor handed out commemorative pens and posed for pictures with those who attended the signing. The celebrations continued at Providence Saint Peter Hospital in Olympia, with pizza, pop, sandwiches, cake and a performance of Beggar/Builder, Joan Pinkerton Tucker's one-person play of the life of Mother Joseph.
Encouraged by their success in Olympia, the sixth-graders went on to realize their other two goals for honoring Mother Joseph, which included raising more than $650 for the new bench at her grave site. To mark the end of their exciting year, the class filled a time capsule with memorabilia from their civics class endeavors. The capsule was to be opened on the occasion of their class reunion, which they fittingly planned for April 16, 2005.