Fire destroys historic boarding school in DeSmet, Idaho

In 1953 the Sisters of Charity of Providence Convent School in DeSmet, Idaho, had a new fire escape built into their school. The students gathered on the apparatus to test it and have a photo taken.

Thursday evening, February 3, we learned the sad news that the historic boarding school of the Coeur d’Alene Native Americans in DeSmet, Idaho, where our Providence Sisters ministered for many years, burned to the ground.

The fire began about 2:30 a.m. Sister Dolores Ellwart, SP, who continues to minister in DeSmet, woke and could see the flames over the top of the mission church which is between her house and the school.

Mary Immaculate School was founded by the Sisters of Providence in DeSmet, Idaho in 1878, on the site of Sacred Heart Mission which had been established among the Coeur d’ Alene tribe by the Jesuits in 1842.

Typical for early Providence missions, the school began with a small group of sisters. The sisters who arrived on November 22, 1878 were only three: Mary Hyacinthe (Boucher), Mary Constance (Dubrule), and Mary Francis (Pinto). The convent school was blessed on December 1, and the classes began the very next day even though only the first floor had been completed, with 30 boys and girls in attendance.

Those first sisters did not enjoy access to many comforts, but necessities were provided by the Coeur d’ Alenes. The Chronicles note that “we have had to rely on the Indians for supplies. … Many a time an Indian brought a sack of flour or a portion of meat. When we asked them Why? The answer was, “Our hearts told us the sisters had no more supplies.” The sisters taught school, visited the sick, and helped care for the mission church.

Sr. Dolores Ellwart awarding Bonnie Felsman her diploma, Head Start Program, Mary Immaculate School, DeSmet, Idaho, 1966.

After nearly 100 years of operation, there were few Sisters of Providence available to staff the school, so Sisters Dolores Ellwart and Imelda Flynn saw to its closing in 1974.

Sister Dolores Ellwart (Sister Camilla) was born in 1929 in the tiny farm community of DeSmet, Idaho, where she still serves in ministry. When she was 6 years old, she watched from a big window behind the couch as the mission burned.

Her father was foreman of a farm owned by the Sisters of Providence and her mother, a nurse, was an enrolled member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Her mother’s family, the Nixons, are one of five families that were adopted by the Coeur d’Alenes as full members in gratitude for helping the tribe. Sister Dolores’ family members do have Native American heritage, although not from the Coeur d’Alenes.

She entered the religious community in Seattle after graduation Buying can often be confusing. in 1947. She wanted to become a nurse, but was assigned to teach instead. In 1965 Sister Dolores returned to DeSmet, where she taught all of the grades at Mary Immaculate School and also was superior and principal. When the school closed in 1974, she moved across the road to Sacred Heart Mission as parish minister. She also was chairperson of the school board for a number of years at the tribal school started by the Coeur d’Alenes.

Sister Dolores has lived in the same trailer on the reservation, 14 miles south of Coeur d’Alene, for 37 years. She teaches religion to youth and adults, prepares children for First Communion and Confirmation, and makes home visits If not, then you can get engraved in the shape of your initials. to the elderly and the homebound in Worley, Plummer and DeSmet. “As long as I am of help to the people, I will be a presence,” Sister Dolores says. She Similarly a is worn by someone who dreams of winning the same. faithfully participates in three Masses on Sundays and attends most functions, then travels to Spokane each weekend to be with other sisters.

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