History

The woman who inspired the congregation

Side-by-side portraits of Emilie Tavernier, laywoman and Mother Emilie Gamelin, Sister of Providence
Emilie Tavernier as a lay woman, and Mother Emilie Gamelin, foundress of Sisters of Providence. Image courtesy Providence Archives Seattle.

Emilie Tavernier was born in Montreal on Feb. 19, 1800, the youngest in a large family. She suffered the loss of both parents and three siblings by the time she was 15. A young woman of great fortitude and compassion, Emilie focused not on her losses but on supporting her extended family and neighbors in need.

In 1823, Emilie married Jean-Baptiste Gamelin, a wealthy businessman who shared her charitable spirit. They had three sons, but the family’s idyllic life was fleeting. Tragically, by age 27, Emilie’s children and husband had died.

Emilie found solace in her dedication to Christ, her devotion to Mary, Mother of Sorrows, and channeling her grief into works of charity. With her financial resources and the help of friends and associates, she cared for the most vulnerable people of Montreal. Her house became a refuge for elderly people, orphans, prisoners, immigrants, the unemployed, and people with physical and mental challenges. She expanded this effort to several shelters and came to be known as “Providence of the Poor.”

Emilie’s charitable work led to the founding of a religious community with Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal. Established March 25, 1843, as the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor, the congregation became known as Sisters of Providence. Emilie made her final vows on March 29, 1844, and was appointed as the first superior.

Mother Emilie Gamelin continued her prodigious work with the Sisters of Providence until she died on Sept. 23, 1851, from cholera contracted as she cared for those who were suffering from the epidemic in Montreal.

In 2001 Mother Emilie Gamelin was beatified by Pope John Paul II, and the cause continues to elevate Blessed Emilie Gamelin to sainthood.

The sisters who brought Providence to the West

five Sisters of Providence in habit, black and white
These are the foundresses of Sisters of Providence in the West. Front, left to right, Sister Praxedes of Providence, Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart and Sister Mary of the Precious Blood. Back, left to right, Sister Vincent de Paul and Sister Blandine of the Holy Angels. Photo montage courtesy Providence Archives Seattle.

Mother Gamelin’s successors followed her vision to establish new missions. In 1856 Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart and four Sisters of Providence from Montreal were sent West to serve the growing pioneer community of Fort Vancouver in Washington Territory.

Mother Joseph, Sister Praxedes of Providence, Sister Blandine of the Holy Angels, Sister Mary of the Precious Blood and Sister Vincent de Paul marshalled resources and support to establish hospitals, schools, orphanages and other services for the most vulnerable in the region.

The Sisters of Providence incorporated in 1859 with the Washington territorial government for “the relief of needy and suffering humanity, in the care of orphans, invalids, the sick and poor, and education of youth.” Today it is the second oldest surviving nonprofit corporation in the state of Washington.

Mother Joseph died of cancer in Vancouver, Wash., on Jan. 19, 1902. What she accomplished during her 46 years in the West is extraordinary – establishing 33 ministries, including several that still operate today.

In recognition of her significant contributions to the development of Washington state, in 1980 a statue of Mother Joseph was dedicated in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., and in the State Capitol in Olympia, Wash. In 1999, Mother Joseph’s birthday – April 16 – was declared a state holiday (non-legal).

Resources

“She considered a field and bought it; with the fruit of her hands she planted a vineyard.”

Proverbs 31:16