Shivering in a cold January night, the old nun could barely lift herself from her pillow. Bedridden for months in the infirmary of her beloved Providence Academy, she could not take being motionless anymore. She, who before her cancer had hardly ever taken a day off. But for two years now, this forsaken illness had stopped her from overseeing the different institutions under her responsibility, as she had done before, every day for nearly half a century.
It was 1902. She had experienced the arrival of the new year, but one thing was certain, she would not see it through.
Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart felt dizzy. Since when exactly had she departed from her native Quebec, leaving behind her parents and siblings in Laval, and her second family from the Sisters of Providence Mother House in Montreal? Since 1856, 45 years ago to be exact, more than half of her lifetime.
So many miles traveled across America from coast to coast, back and forth and several times. So much work done to “clear” the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and of Canada too, establishing hospitals, schools, orphanages, residences… working with the people, for the people, and, of course, for the Lord.
She would have liked to write to Mother Marie-Antoinette in Montreal, General Superior, but she no longer had the strength. Looking at the crucifix hanging on her room, Mother Joseph smiled slightly thinking: “Jesus, my divine husband, Mary Mother of Sorrows, and you, my dear patron Saint Joseph, this is the end for my body, but this is only the first act ending! Soon we will be reunited for our second act together.”
She glanced at the young nun dozing on the chair beside her. This made her smile again. Ah! Youth full of life, full of strength and ideas. This girl, like all the rest, had kept her warm and had watched over her relentlessly. They felt the end was coming, her end.
Before, she had cared for the residents, and for the sick and dying sisters too. She remembered her dear Mother Emilie Gamelin , her mentor and inspiration. Mother Gamelin had welcomed her to the Asile de la Providence one day after Christmas in 1843, when she was barely 20 years old, and her name was still Esther Pariseau.
Shaking gently her head, she called to mind the vague memory of her late father speaking to the superior of the congregation: “She can read, write and figure correctly. She can cook, sew and spin, and do all kinds of housework well […] Madame, she has learned carpentry from me and can handle tools as well as I can […] She will someday make a very good superior.” Such audacity from her dear father made Mother Joseph blush. And what an old story!
She was the thirteenth to have professed the religious vows. Those were the early days of the Congregation. But then in 1902, there were more than a thousand. She was named Sister Joseph after her father’s profession as a carpenter, like her heavenly father and Jesus’ earthly father himself, Saint Joseph.
She was one of those present at the dying moments of their dearest Mother Gamelin in 1851. In Spirit, the foundress had always watched over her. Mother Gamelin would have liked to be a missionary but her obligations as Mother Superior prevented her from it. But she had passed on to “her daughters” her desire to go settle in the distant wilderness of the Pacific West.
Mother Joseph was full of that missionary call, further awaken in her by the two bishops Blanchet in 1852. Four years later, she surrendered to her call, while being appointed leader of a group of five other missionaries. Her head was full of ideas and ambitions, and her hands were skilled both in the arts and in the use of tools.
When they were about to leave for the distant lands of Oregon, Bishop Ignace Bourget gave her a new name: “You will have for Sister Servant, Sister Joseph, who will henceforth bear the name of Sister Joseph of the Sacred Heart, so that you may always remember that it will be through the Divine Heart of Jesus that the new foundation will labor successfully.”
Everything had yet to be done. Weeding was needed both in a literal and spiritual sense. Life was difficult. Everything had to be built from nothing, and she knew how to do that.
Inspired by the compassionate charity, love of neighbor and charismatic spirit of our foundress, Sister Joseph of the Sacred Heart devoted herself completely to each project. Either by drawing plans for a hospital, or by helping with her own hands to lay the foundations of a school, or by sewing the dress of a wax Child Jesus figure she had just made, or by seeking in all the four corners of America financial support for the works.
Going deep into her memory, the old nun recalled the attic where they lived and worked in the old times, how it resembled, in its frugality, the manger of Bethlehem. Yet neither rain, nor snow nor politics, nor lack of money could stop her desire to build.
There were times when discouragement crept into her heart. That was part of human nature. However, Mother Joseph could count on the encouragement of her lay allies such as the Ladies of Charity, and other religious companions such as the bishops, like Bishop Bourget himself. Their epistolary exchanges never grew cold: “It still seems to me that Our Lord is willing to use you in all kinds of works of charity in the vast Oregon Territory, and I am confident that you will not resist the adorable destiny He has in store for you.”
Since 1856, 31 educational healthcare, and social services institutions had been founded, as well as residences and orphanages. Mother Joseph had overseen the construction and taken part in the design of 29 of them. Institution number 32 was on its way, because as she used to say “Why should we wait?” “[…] If in founding an establishment we needed to wait until having nothing to renounce to, we would never take on a new work because we are never without work.” That was the graceful legacy she proudly passed on to the Community.
On that afternoon of mid-January 1902, living her last moments in peace surrounded by her sisters, Mother Joseph told them:
“My sisters, I ask your pardon for all the grief I have caused you. I forgive with all my heart whatever sorrow you may think you have caused me […] I am happy to die in the community. I do not regret having spent my strength in the works of the Institute. […] My dear sisters, allow me to recommend to you the care of the poor in our houses as well as those outside. Take care of them… do not be afraid of so doing. Help them… and I assure you that you will have no regrets. Never say that such does not concern you, or let others see to them. Sisters, whatever concerns the poor is always our affair.”
On January 19, the bells pealed at the Academy of Providence, confirming the grim news of the pioneer’s death. Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart had ceased to exist.
“For all of us, it seemed impossible to live without Mother Joseph, whose very presence was part of our lives. In all these years, since the arrival of the five missionaries on Vancouver soil, she had been a hard worker, the driving force behind the success of which our entire western community is the living proof. Unrivaled in zeal, in judgment, in vigor of mind and heart… such was our courageous Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart.”
A builder, an artist, a carpenter, a leader, a woman of faith, full-hearted, with an iron will… there were many ways to describe such an imposing and at the same time modest nun. Letters of respect, friendship and affection arrived immediately after her death.
“Since her arrival to this coast, Mother Joseph’s life has been most active and particularly dedicated to the cause of suffering human beings. She was a woman of great talent and supernatural virtue to a distinguished degree. Her personality demonstrated her courage in the face of adversity. Her courage was strong enough to move mountains or expand the walls of convents when they seemed too narrow. She has always been a true daughter of charity, through her unconditional friendship, her extreme kindness and hospitality, her zeal for churches and altars, and finally, through her love for the devotions of the Church, especially those of the Sacred Heart… Her name and her actions would never be part of the public archives but instead they will be engraved in the Book of Life, and they will live up in the memory and hearts of her numerous friends and other grateful people, regardless of their beliefs.”
This is a kind tribute but wrong in its conclusions. Against the author’s view, the name and deeds of Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart have been recorded in several places and archives, allowing her to be recognized more than originally expected.
The General Superior of the Sisters of Providence, Gilberte Villeneuve, looked into the audience with pride. What a day for her Community! An unprecedented tribute to one of their own. In front of the many dignitaries, mostly American and Canadian, her fellow Quebecer and sister in religion Esther Pariseau would receive due honors on May 1, 1980.
Esther Pariseau was best known as Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart. But was she known outside Washington state?
This inspiring and strong woman barely known in her homeland had been chosen by Washingtonians for the Statuary Hall at the Capitol in the American capital city, Washington D.C. ,where the statues of two significant personalities of each state were placed. Mother Joseph became the 5th woman and the only nun in that group of one hundred.
Sister Villeneuve looked with shiny eyes the statue of the pioneer standing on the lawn illuminated by a vibrant sun. Made from bronze, depicted kneeling in prayer and surrounded by building tools, Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart was now in the Capitol. From the tribune, the Superior took the floor to celebrate Mother Joseph:
“The life and spirit of Mother Joseph have been an inspiration to all of us, for she was a woman of courage. […] a woman of compassion. Her first works in the Northwest were directed to the service of the poor. […] These were the works she continued throughout her life. Mother Joseph was an architect and artist. From the grand design to the tiniest detail, Mother Joseph was a builder. […] She was a woman of vision. As people in the West learned of her skills, the call for help was constant. But she planned carefully, traveling through Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Idaho and Montana to places where she saw the need was greatest.
“She built structures with one purpose in mind: care for other human beings. Mother Joseph was a woman of faith. Though a gifted architect and an exceptional leader, the keystone of her courage was faith. Her belief in Divine Providence led her to undertake arduous journeys, accept immense sacrifices, and accomplish
enormous tasks. She knew that God would provide. Mother Joseph was a woman of prayer. Throughout a life of hard work and service, she always took the time to pray. Through prayer came strength. The statue of Mother Joseph dedicated today reflects this strength. When asked why he created a kneeling statue, the sculptor, Felix de Weldon, answered “Because Mother Joseph could never have done everything she did without prayer.” […] Were Mother Joseph alive today, she would never have asked for this honor. We accept in her behalf to rededicate our lives to the values of compassion, love and faith which she so clearly espoused. In honoring Mother Joseph, we honour all people whose dedication and committed service have improved the quality of life for others […].” 
The audience stood up and erupted in applause.
In 1999, a group of sixth-graders had sent a petition to the Washington State Legislature. The students and their teacher wanted Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart to be recognized and her accomplishments to be celebrated.
After the due deliberations of the politicians, the bill was finally passed unanimously, and April 16 was officially designated “Mother Joseph Day”. Smiles appeared on young and old faces. They had proudly paid homage to a historical woman and a symbol.
This year marks the 43rd anniversary of the installation of Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart’s statue at the U.S. Capitol, and the 24th anniversary of the designation of April 16 as her day in Washington State. These two public and tangible tributes celebrate the extraordinary life of an exceptional woman: Esther Pariseau.
Our hope is that more people from her homeland and around the world come to know her and recognize her.
To learn more about Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and the Sisters of Providence in the American Pacific West: https://www.providence.org/about/providence-archives/history-online
By Marie-Claude Béland, Archivist, Archives Providence, General Administration.
Other tributes to Mother Joseph:
- 1981: Inducted to the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. https://www.cowgirl.net/portfolios/mother-joseph-pariseau/
- 2000: Inducted to the Puget Sound Business Hall of Fame.
- Toponymy (streets named after her):
- Mother Joseph Place, Vancouver, Washington.
- Rue Esther-Pariseau, Laval, Quebec.
- Saint-Martin Church, Laval, Quebec: Commemorative plaque.
- St. Joseph Parish Church, Yakima, Washington: Stained Glass.
- Several commemorative plaques in Washington State.
Several copies of the statue (1:4 scale) in some ministries of the Sisters of Providence.
List of the 29 institutions founded by Mother Joseph
|Name of the Establishment||Place||Year of foundation|
|Providence Academy||Vancouver, Washington||1856|
|St. Joseph Hospital||Vancouver, Wash.||1858|
|Providence St. Joseph||Steilacoom, Wash.||1863|
|St. Vincent Academy||Walla Walla, Wash.||1864|
|Holy Family Hospital||St. Ignatius, Montana||1864|
|Providence of Our Lady Seven Dolors||Tulalip, Wash.||1868|
|Providence of the Sacred Heart||Colville, Wash.||1873|
|St. Patrick Hospital||Missoula, Montana||1873|
|St. James Residence||Vancouver, Wash.||1874|
|St. Joseph Academy||Yakima, Wash.||1875|
|St. Vincent Hospital||Portland, AboutRegon||1875|
|Providence of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart||Cowlitz, Wash.||1876|
|Providence Hospital||Seattle, Wash.||1877|
|St. Mary Hospital||Walla Walla, Wash.||1880|
|St. Mary Hospital||Astoria, Oregon||1880|
|St. Michael School||Olympia, Wash.||1881|
|Providence St. Martin||Frenchtown, Montana||1881|
|Sacred Heart Academy||Missoula, Montana||1885|
|Sacred Heart Hospital||Spokane, Wash.||1886|
|St. Clare Hospital||Fort Benton, Montana||1886|
|St. Joseph Academy||Sprague, Wash.||1886|
|St. Peter Hospital||Olympia, Wash.||1887|
|St. John Hospital||Port Townsend, Wash.||1890|
|Mission St. Eugene||Kootenay, B.C. (Canada)||1890|
|Providence Hospital||Wallace, Idaho||1891|
|St. Elizabeth Hospital||Yakima, Wash.||1891|
|Columbus Hospital||Great Falls, Montana||1892|
|St. Ignatius Hospital||Colfax, Wash.||1893|
|Providence St. Genevieve||New Westminster, B.C. (Canada)||1900|
Photos of buildings designed by Mother Joseph:
 In the City of Vancouver, Washington (United States). Providence Academy was primary a school, but it also hosted the offices of the provincial administration and a novitiate. Drawn and built in 1873 by Mother Joseph, it is the only original building still existing to this day (2023).
 What today is part of the province of Quebec was known at that time as Canada East (1841-1867), formerly named “Lower Canada”.
 Municipality near Montreal (Quebec).
 Blessed Emilie Tavernier-Gamelin (1800-1851) foundress of the congregation and first General Superior of the Sisters of Providence.
 First Mother House of the Congregation in Montreal, Quebec (1843-1887).
 Gleason, Mary, SP. “He has given me a flame.” Providence Collection 14, 1992, p.7.
 In 1980, the year the statue of Mother Joseph was installed on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., there were more than 2,400 active Sisters of Providence in the congregation. Since 1843, more than 6,200 women have joined the Institute of Providence.
 François Norbert, Archbishop of Oregon City, and Augustin Magloire, Bishop of Nesqually.
 Bishop of Montreal and founder of the congregation of the Sister of Providence.
 Gleason, op.cit., p. 33.
 In Vancouver, now Washington, but back in 1856, it was part of Oregon.
Letter from Bishop Ignace Bourget to Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, December 29, 1859 (Registre de correspondance Bourget, letter #83).
 In reference to the Providence Hospital in Oakland, California, founded a few months after her death.
 Letter to Mother Marie-Antoinette, General Superior, from Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, March 22, 1901.
 Gleason, op.cit., p. 101.
 “Gleanings from the Past”, published on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Sisters of Providence in the West, 1916.
 The Catholic Sentinel, Portland, 30 January 1902.
 A copy of this same statue was installed at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia on October 9, 1980.
 To this day (2023), there are 14 women represented from the total of 100 statues.
 “Acceptance of the Statue of Mother Joseph (Esther Pariseau) presented by the State of Washington. Proceedings in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., May 1, 1980”, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1980, p. 33-35. To see the statue on the official website of the Statuary Hall go to: https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/art/mother-joseph-statue
 Two copies were installed at the Washington State Capitol in