Born Esther Pariseau on April 17, 1823, Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart was the eldest daughter of ten children. Esther grew up learning both traditionally feminine taught skills like sewing and embroidery from her mother Francoise and the construction skills that shaped her life's work from her carriage-maker father Joseph Pariseau.
Esther's revolutionary spirit made itself known early in life. She admired her older brother, another Joseph, who led a Patriote militia allied with the Sons of Liberty in response to the political turmoil in French Canada. The Napoleonic Wars were raging in France, and over in "new world" French Canada the Catholics were fighting for the right to practice their religion.
Soon young brother Joseph's oversized ego due to his new leadership role irritated Esther so badly that she founded a chapter of what she called the Younger Sons and Daughters of Liberty as a home guard militia.
Mother Joseph c. 1850, Montreal. Note her scissors hanging from her habit belt. She usually hung a hammer too.
MoJo's sister, Luce Pariseau LeBlanc in Montreal.
Joseph (MoJo's older brother) Pariseau.
Over 40 ten-to-fourteen year old boys and girls were then trained by Esther, including her older brother Stanislaus. Stanislaus, being male, was technically in charge of the brigade but Esther herself frequently took over command without complaint (1). It was only when her father advised her that he had received a message directly from God to cease their revolutionary activities that Esther agreed to give up the fight and disband their brigade (2).
The Pariseau family had a very personal, tangible relationship with God, and were fascinating to research.
Mother Joseph grew up learning all the skills required to build a Caleche, or Carriage, from her talented craftsman father, Joseph Parizeau in his workshop. Her sister Julie also helped, but Esther was particularly gifted.
Wax figure of Jesus crafted by MJ at the Academy.
My interest in Mother Joseph reached a fever pitch when I happened upon the following nugget in "The Bell And The River," a biography of her life written by Sister Mary of the Blessed Sacrament McCrosson:
"By the time she was twelve she knew the name and purpose of each of her father's tools; moreover, her hands knew the feel of them. Sometimes he permitted her to put them carefully in place for him in the meticulous order which is the mark of the craftsman. Very early he taught her how to grasp the hickory-handled hammer to best advantage. She loved the power that came to her with its sturdy strength, and she liked to keep it with her, hooked over her belt when not in use. She also learned to use the knife, the saw, the chisel, the drawknife, the spokeshave, the bit brace, the plane, the square.
She watched iron become white-hot in the forge and shower sparks as it was shaped and hammered on the anvil. Sometimes, even, she was allowed to take Joseph's place with the bellows. She was not only fascinated and awed as something serviceable and practical emerged from her father's workmanship; she was also kindled to emulate his creative achievements" (p.18).
Early photo of Joseph (MoJo's father) Pariseau.
I had a visceral reaction to reading about Esther's time with her father, slamming me back to being a kid in the garage with my own dad with a whiplash level of deja vu. This passage in otherwise admittedly dry text about the life of a Catholic nun whetted my appetite with a portrait of a woman who defied both odds and expectations of her time.
As I continued to research Mother Joseph's life, I found myself dumbfounded at a series of continual synchronicities that I just couldn't ignore.
Religious Icon of Emilie Gamelin and Mother Joseph.
When Esther joined the Sisters of Providence at age twenty she named herself Joseph, after her father, brother, and the father of Jesus. Saint Joseph is also known as "The Worker" and she felt a special connection to Him throughout her life. She also named herself after the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and had a lifetime of what she saw as synchronicities or sign's of "God's Divine Providence" around the Sacred Heart, which guided her life.
Her particularly varied set of skills was unusual for people of both genders the time, reflected in the way her father proudly introduces Esther to Mother Emilie Gamelin, the first Superior of the House of Providence, to Esther's reported embarrassment in December 1844.
Original Asile de Providence in Montreal, Canada where Mother Joseph and Emilie Gamelin met. Sadly torn down for a Metro station.
“She can read and write and figure accurately. She can cook and sew and spin and do all manner of housework as well. She has learned carpentry from me and can handle tools as well as I can. Moreover, she can plan and supervise the work of others, and I assure you, Madame, she will someday make a very good superior. (3)” - Joseph Pariseau to Emilie Gamelin, 1844.
Arguments for the First Female Architect in North America.
As a result of working in her father's carriage shop, Sister Joseph also knew how to identify appropriate quality timber for various uses, farm, draw up architectural plans, construct buildings... and make bricks. MoJo's often incorrectly listed as the First Female Architect in North America, an honor that actually belongs to Louise Blanchard Bethune.
This confusion persists partly due to disagreement of what is considered to be an architect's job description.
One of MoJo's bookbinding tools, Providence Archive, Seattle.
"Architect" comes from the Greek architekton, which translates loosely to "master carpenter". Later, 1734's The Builder's Dictionary calls an architect:
"a Master Workman in a Building, he who designs the Model or draws the Plot, Plan or Draught of the whole Fabrick; whose Business it is to consider the whole Manner and Method of the Building; and also to compute the Charge and Expence (4)".
Mother Joseph did all of this of course, but since she was both female and her projects were all public works through the Sisters of Providence there were few official offices or positions to be noted.
MoJo began construction on Spokane's Sacred Heart Hospital in 1886. She founded the social services in many cities in the West including Spokane, Washington.
Both Bethune and Mother Joseph were actively credited with important architectural buildings by 1881, but Bethune opened her own office as a married woman in 1885, making her the official first professional female Architect (7). Both women were using similar Parisian Beaux-Arts principles in their designs even though the School of Fine Arts didn't admit women until 1898 (8). The best way to gain skills as an architect in the 19th century was through apprenticeship, and these positions were only open to men at the time unless a rare male family member agreed to take a woman under their wing.
It was difficult if not impossible for women to conduct any sort of business transactions without a trusted male assisting them. Women could not buy or sell property, vote, or engage in legal contracts at the time Mother Joseph was living.
Mother Joseph built Colfax, Washington's haunted St Ignatius Hospital in 1893. She also nursed patients there herself before and after construction of the building.
The hospital's progress was chronicled in the local papers and Mother Joseph was interviewed several times. May 20, 1886's Spokesman-Review.
Nov. 13 1887's glowing Spokesman-Review article about the Governor's visit to the new Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane.
Ken Spiering's 1986 tribute to Mother Joseph "The Call and The Challenge" showing her laying brick is located at the Spokane waterfront where she built the Sacred Heart Hospital.
Sister Joseph Heads to Oregon in 1856.
In 1856 Augustin-Magloire Blanchet, the Bishop of the new Diocese of Nesqually (now the Archdiocese of Seattle), approached Emilie Gamelin at the Sisters of Providence Motherhouse in Montreal. The Hudson's Bay Company had created a bustling Fort Vancouver area that was in desperate need of social services. Sister Joseph was chosen to lead four other companions as missionaries to the Pacific NW Territories region and promoted to Mother Superior.
The long boat journey out was difficult, and at one point the missionaries prayed to God for an intervention when the keel of the boat making its way into the rough Columbia River's "Graveyard of the Pacific" scraped the bottom of the ocean floor. When they finally arrived at Fort Vancouver nothing was prepared as promised and provisions were beyond primitive.
Any other band of nuns would have gotten back on the boat, but Mother Joseph got to work right away making friends at the Fort and Hudson's Bay Company and began surveying the supplies in the area.
Because of Mother Joseph's unique skillset, she was able to renovate a small building they were given with materials from the Hudson's Bay Company and the Catholic compound grew from that tiny lot into the head of the Diocese.
The first St. Joseph's Hospital on the grounds of the Providence Academy.
Providence Academy, circa 1910.
The Old St James Cathedral at Fort Vancouver stood from 1846- 1889. It was burned in an arson incident.
Mother Joseph is buried in the Catholic Cemetery that bears her name in Vancouver, WA. Her modest grave is identical to her Sisters.
Her Masculine Nature...
I discovered during research that Mother Joseph was particularly intuitive and skilled at making and keeping the kind of relationships she needed with men to get what she saw as God's work done. Additionally, her known mastery of many carpentry and masonry skills have helped her reach an almost mythical status as a six-foot tall nun who always wore tools on the belt of her religious habit.
Equally artist and an architect, she always designed her buildings with the thought that God's poor and infirm deserved to be surrounded by beauty. She was responsible for designing the buildings, supervising their construction, and fund raising. Each of her "begging tours" into mining camps lasted several months and raised between $2,000 and $5,000 towards her projects.
Three brave nuns headed to Oregon in November 1856. Two other novitates joined them after Mother Joseph went to the chapel and prayed desperately to Emilie and God for help.
"She could use the saw and hammer with the skill of a trained artisan. Once she even sawed the head of the statue of St. Joseph that it might be replaced by one more becoming to the saint. This was but an accidental display of skill, but the workmen she employed knew and felt that they were in the service of a master architect, and that nothing short of the best would escape her critical eye (5)".
These tours were dangerous, and she faced perils including strange men, bears, cougars, wolves, attacks from local Indigenous tribes and once even saved another Sister from drowning. She also managed to boldly outwit a gang of robbers once by convincing one of the younger thieves to please hand her bag to her for a moment and then quickly hid her significant funds in her underwear.
Known as a being stickler for detail, Mother Joseph often inspected rafters and tested wood by bouncing on planks to ensure their support. She also inspected every single brick used in the Providence Academy and at one point had a disagreement with L.M. Hidden over his brick quality. Eventually they mended fences and continued to work together building Vancouver.
Later, after a group of Washington elementary school students began a campaign to have her recognized, Felix W. DeWeldon sculpted a statue of Mother Joseph with her tools at her feet to be placed in the U. S. National Statuary Hall Collection in 1980. The National Hall was again in the news due to some assholes.
She is one of two statues that represents the state of Washington at the U.S. Capitol. She is also one of only nine women represented in the National Gallery; Rosa Parks is another. Mother Joseph's statue was met with controversy when it was first unveiled in 1983 as some members of the public felt placing a religious woman was too narrow a representation.
Beggar, Builder, the Mother of Vancouver. 1/4 sized replica of the statue in the National Gallery at the US Capital. Providence Hospital, Portland.
Ironically, the other statue from Washington is of pioneer Marcus Whitman, a Presbyterian missionary linked to a tragic event with the Cayuse tribe; there is a movement underway to have the Whitman statue removed.
Mother Joseph had a special interest in Native people, and obtained a level of respect with various tribes during her travels to Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana that resulted in them calling her "Chief of the Black Robes," which we discuss on Episode 4 of Two Witches Podcast.
Additionally, the Pariseau family is deeply connected to the beginning of Chinook Indian Nation in Oregon.
The nun on the horse on the right is believed to be Mother Joseph on one of her many dangerous travels to build schools and hospitals.
Repeatedly, it is noted in original sources who knew her how masculine Mother Joseph was, typically paired with breathless descriptions of her skills as a worker with restless drive:
"Immensely occupied ever with creatures and the material interests of the community, Mother Joseph never lost the presence of the Creator. A vein of spiritual energy ran from action to action... her masculine energy and her devotion to the growing West...(6)".
This admired energy directly powered a career of over 46 years, building over 30 schools, orphanages and hospitals here in the Pacific Northwest, and the rise of the Providence Health System that still serves the West today.
Mother Joseph died in her room at the Providence Academy from a brain tumor resulting from metastatic breast cancer on January 19, 1902.
Descriptions of Mother Joseph's "Hidden Power" got our attention.
1 - (McCrosson, Sister Mary of the Blessed Sacrament. “The Bell and the River”, p 27)
2 - (McCrosson, p. 29)
3 - (McCrosson, p. 43)
4 - (Blank, Carla & Martin, Tania - “Storming the Old Boy’s Citadel”, p. 20.)
5 - (Sister Mary James, p. 85-86)
6 - (Sister Mary James - “Providence A Sketch of the Sisters of Charity of Providence in the Northwest 1856 - 1931”, P. 83).
7 - (Blank, Carla & Martin, Tania, p. 14)
8 - (Blank, Carla & Martin, Tania, p. 15)