VANCOUVER – It was a muddy, uphill slog for Mother Joseph and the Sisters of Providence when they arrived at a makeshift wharf on the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver on a cold December afternoon 163 years ago.
“We had to walk about a mile before coming to the bishop’s palace,” which really was “a little wooden ramshackle house,” Father Louis Rossi, who accompanied the sisters, recorded in his diary. “The road which led there wasn’t made to be walked on in dainty ankle boots; we sank in to the knees, and it wasn’t always easy to get out of these unexpected ruts.”
The arrival of the sisters and their legacy in Vancouver and beyond will be honored at 1 p.m. December 8 when The Historic Trust of Vancouver hosts “The Sisters of Providence: A Pilgrimage of Service & Dedication.”
Modern-day walkers will retrace Mother Joseph’s footsteps, but they won’t face anything quite as harsh as that muddy walk. Although the weather could be similar, certainly the walk will be much improved — with paved trails, a graceful bridge across busy State Route 14, and a cozy place to enjoy French Canadian corn chowder and warming beverages near the end of the journey.
“Walking the route connects people to the landscape in a way different than just history,” said Richard Burrows, director of community outreach and engagement for the Trust, which owns Providence Academy. “It connects with time and place, and it gives people a chance at experiencing what the sisters experienced.”
In 1858, the Sisters of Providence founded St. Joseph Hospital in Vancouver, the first permanent hospital in the Northwest Territories. This postcard depicts the hospital that was blessed and opened to the public for tours on March 19, 1911, the feast of St. Joseph. The structure, visible from Interstate 5, was demolished in 1972. Photo: Courtesy The Historic Trust of Vancouver
The significance of the walk isn’t lost on Marianne Russell, a lifelong Vancouver resident who attended Providence Academy and will be among the participants.
“This pilgrimage is a one-of-a-kind walking tour,” Russell, past chairwoman of the historical society for the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver, wrote in an email. “By holding it in the same month and day that Mother Joseph and her four sisters first landed at the Fort Vancouver wharf, participants will begin to understand these were no ordinary women.”
The walk starts at the Columbia River wharf area at Fort Vancouver Waterfront, where participants can park before continuing across acclaimed architect Maya Lin’s Confluence Land Bridge to the site of the St. James Mission and the sisters’ first building. Then pilgrims will visit the U.S. Army barracks, the site of St. Joseph Hospital, and finally Providence Academy in downtown Vancouver. It is the last-standing building of Mother Joseph’s legacy of more than 30 schools, hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the aged and mentally ill.
Burrows will be the primary presenter at each of the sites on the walk, but at some stops he will ask people such as Brad Richardson, executive director of the Clark County Historical Museum, to chime in, especially at places where a building no longer exists. About five docents from the Academy will also lend their expertise, he said.
Sisters of Providence: A Pilgrimage of Service & Dedication
When: 1–2:30 p.m., Sunday, December 8. Reserve a spot.
Start: 111 S.E. Columbia Way, Vancouver
Stops: Columbia River wharf area at Fort Vancouver waterfront park, site of the St. James Mission and the sisters’ first building, U.S. Army barracks, site of St. Joseph’s Hospital, Providence Academy
Length: About 2 miles roundtrip. A shuttle will be available for pilgrims who don’t wish to walk back to the wharf.
Tour Providence Academy
Free, drop-in tours of the historic Providence Academy building in downtown Vancouver are offered from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Tours last 45 minutes. Group tours can be requested through The Historic Trust of Vancouver.
Tours are also offered at 10 a.m. on first Saturdays: December 7, January 4, February 1, March 7 and April 4.
Check in at the docent office, Suite 103, just inside the front door of Providence Academy, 400 E. Evergreen Blvd. For more information, call 360-433-9787.
Janet Cleaveland is a member of the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver.