Mother Joseph of the Sisters of Providence (Esther Pariseau) (1823-1902)

  • By Mildred Andrews
  • Posted 7/10/2003
  • Essay 5483
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Mother Joseph of the Sisters of Providence gained posthumous recognition in 1980, when the U.S. Senate accepted her statue, a gift from Washington state, for inclusion in the national Statuary Hall Collection. The inscription reads: "She made monumental contributions to health care, education, and social work throughout the Northwest." Known as "the Builder," Mother Joseph designed and/or supervised construction of 29 schools and hospitals, one of which was Seattle's first hospital. She is recognized as one of the first architects in Washington Territory.

Mother Joseph was born Esther Pariseau on April 16, 1823, in a farmhouse near Saint Elzear, Quebec. The third of 12 children, she learned carpentry skills from her father and the domestic arts from her mother. At age 20, she entered the convent of the Sisters of Charity of Providence (later renamed Sisters of Providence) in Montreal, where she took the name Joseph in honor of her father.

Mission to the Northwest

When Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet of the Nisqually Diocese, located on the west side of the Cascade Mountains in Washington Territory, requested assistance, the mother house sent five sisters, led by Sister Joseph, to the Northwest. On a cold December 8, 1856, they arrived at Fort Vancouver, just north of the Columbia River, ending an arduous 45-day, 6,000-mile journey by land and sea. They set to work, converting an old Hudson's Bay building into a combination dormitory and church, and constructing facilities for their school and orphanage.

Despite primitive conditions and hardships, the nuns persevered, feeding the poor, caring for the sick and orphaned, teaching, and gardening. In 1858, they opened St. Joseph's hospital, the first in the Northwest -- one tiny room with four beds, benches, and tables carved by Sister Joseph (later given the title of Mother). In 1874, when space needs were critical, Mother Joseph designed the large, three-story brick building -- a combination hospital, residence and academy (now listed on the National Register of Historic Places) -- that became the sisters' headquarters at Fort Vancouver.

Begging Tours

To finance new buildings and their work, Mother Joseph and some of the sisters launched what they called "begging tours." They spent weeks on horseback and camping outdoors to go to mines as far away as Montana and Colorado, where they appealed to lucky prospectors for donations. Their records tell of outwitting stagecoach robbers, of surviving severe storms, and of brushes with fire, wolves, and even a grizzly bear.

When Father Kauten of Seattle contracted with King County Commissioners to care for the indigent sick, he called on the Sisters of Providence to manage the County's Poor Farm on the Duwamish River. Mother Joseph sent three nuns to Seattle to run the King County Poor Farm in Georgetown beginning in May 1877. They used a remodeled farmhouse, but soon found the arrangements inadequate. Clothed in long black habits, the French-speaking nuns encountered hostility and ridicule in the predominantly Protestant and unchurched community. Sister Chronicler wrote, "At our arrival the people were so prejudiced that they prevented the sick from coming to us ...."

Seattle's First Hospital

Despite all obstacles, charity cases and paying patients alike came to rely on Seattle's only hospital. With the help of community members, they moved to larger quarters in central Seattle, where they continued to provide free meals and care for the indigent. As the population increased, the Sisters had to turn away patients for lack of beds.

They called upon Mother Joseph, who purchased an existing house at 5th Avenue and Madison Street. Although functioning in 1877, the hospital opened officially on April 25, 1878. It was quickly inundated with patients, and Mother Joseph came to Seattle. She retained and worked with architect Donald McKay (b.1841) to draft plans for the three-story wood-frame hospital that rose at 5th Avenue and Spring Street, the site of today's Federal Courthouse. Clad in habit, with hammer and saw in hand, she personally supervised the construction, sometimes ripping out faulty workmanship and redoing it herself.

Maintaining a demeanor of humility and self-effacement, Mother Joseph continued to sign her letters with salutations, such as "Your imperfect," "Your humble daughter," or "Yours devotedly in Jesus' Sacred Heart." Under her leadership, the Sisters founded the Northwest's first school of nursing in Portland in 1892, followed by the Providence School of Nursing in Seattle. Another innovation was the popular Providence "ticket," a pioneer form of medical insurance, which for $10 per year guaranteed full hospital coverage for its owners.

Mother Joseph died of cancer on January 19, 1902, in her room at the Sisters of Providence headquarters in Vancouver, Washington. In 1910 when the Seattle hospital again ran out of space, the sisters had to hire an architect for the first time. On September 24, 1911, they moved to their new building at 17th Avenue and Jefferson Street. The wood-frame hospital was demolished and replaced by the Federal Courthouse.

Today, Mother Joseph's legacy lives on. The Sisters of Providence in Washington state are headquartered in Seattle.

On February 29, 2000, Providence Hospital and Medical Center, the city's oldest hospital, was taken over by Swedish Medical Center.


Mildred Tanner Andrews, Seattle Women: a Legacy of Community Development, 1851-1920 (Seattle: YWCA, 1984), 17-19; Andrews, Woman's Place: a Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 196-198; David M. Buerge and Junius Rochester, Roots and Branches (Seattle: Church Council of Greater Seattle, 1988), 72-75; Ellis Lucia, Seattle's Sisters of Providence (Seattle: Sisters of Providence, 1978); Sisters of Providence Archives, Seattle; Pacific Northwest Women, 1815-1924 ed. by Jean M. Ward and Elaine A. Maveety (Corvalis: OSU Press, 1995), 108-115; Shaping Seattle Architecture, A Historical Guide to the Architects ed. by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 6-15. See also Mary L. Stough, “Mother Joseph, Architect, Pioneer, Beggar,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall 2005), 15-16.

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