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Sisters of Providence celebrate 150 years in region

While the Sisters of Providence in Mother Joseph Province have celebrated their 150th year in 2006, the Bernarda Morin Province in Chile celebrated its 150th in 2003, said Sister Myrta Iturriaga, SP, a native of Chile who serves in ministry in Spokane. 


General Superior Kathryn 'Kitsy' Rutan

The first group of Sisters of Providence sent from Montreal to the West left in 1852 and arrived in Oregon City, Ore.  They had landed in the wrong place.  In the midst of confusion because there were no preparations for their arrival and there was no one to tell them where to go, they stayed only two months, say the archives.

On the way back to Montreal by ship, they were unable to cross Panama, so they headed around the tip of South America. 

After an anguished voyage of 83 days, they arrived in Valparaiso, Chile, she said.  There, the bishop and government invited them to stay and care for orphans, at least until they received authorization from Montreal. 

The General Administration in Montreal approved of this mission and sent additional sisters.  However, several years later, a disagreement arose about the community’s governance. 

Some sisters returned to Montreal, but Mother Bernarda Morin, then 31, decided to stay and was put in charge of the community.

Iturriaga - Sisters of Providence

Sister Myrta Iturriaga and another sister

Today, there are 240 Sisters of Providence in 24 houses from northern to southern Chile and one in Argentina.  In addition to Sister Myrta, another Chilean sister was assigned to the Diocese of Yakima in 1992.

On Dec. 8, 1856, a group of five sisters headed by Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart arrived at Fort Vancouver in the Washington Territory, responding to Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet’s request for sisters to care for orphans and fill other unmet needs “of God’s people on the frontier.”

In 1858, they opened St. Joseph Hospital in Vancouver, the first permanent hospital in the Northwest.

They incorporated in 1859 as the Sisters of Charity of the House of Providence in the Territory of Washington, one of the oldest existing corporation in the state of Washington.

In 1891, the missions in the West divided into three provinces—Sacred Heart in Vancouver, Wash., St. Ignatius in Missoula and St. Vincent de Paul in Portland. 

The Sacred Heart Province moved its headquarters to Seattle in 1924, and the St. Ignatius Province moved its headquarters to Spokane in 1926. 

The two provinces merged as Mother Joseph Province in 2000, with about 185 sisters, one in temporary vows and two novices.  There are about 250 Providence Associates, women and men of various faiths who share the Providence charism without vowed membership.

Under the leadership of Mother Joseph, who died in 1902, the Sisters of Providence opened more than 30 hospitals, schools and homes for orphans, the elderly and the sick in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and southern British Columbia.

The sisters had gone on “begging tours” in the region to raise money for their work. 

Sister Myrta told a story of Mother Joseph being poorly received when she went to miners seeking money for ministries.

“One miner spit in her hand.  She said, ‘Thank you.  This is for me.’  Then she held out her other hand and said, ‘Now, this is for the orphans,’” Sister Myrta said, noting that both Mother Joseph and Mother Bernardo were “strong personalities.”

“From these beginnings, the sisters and lay collaborators have built an extensive network of health, education and human services,” said Sister Margaret Botch, provincial and leadership team coordinator for the Mother Joseph Province.

On Dec. 8, the Sisters of Providence conclude a year of celebration of not only the 150 years in the Northwest but also the sisters and their ministries over those years in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, California and El Salvador, which comprise Mother Joseph Province today.

According to their vocation brochure, sisters in the province “respond to needs of the poor and vulnerable through education, parish ministry, health care, community service and support, housing, prison ministry, pastoral care, spiritual direction and retreats, and foreign missions.”

Mother Emilie Gamelin, foundress of the religious community in Montreal, made a private vow to serve the poor in 1842 and in 1843 founded the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor. 

She and six others professed religious vows as the first Sisters of Providence in 1844.

A pamphlet on the community’s history includes, along with various administrative milestones, a flavor of changes in the community:

• In the 1960s, religious dress changed first to a contemporary habit and then to civilian wear. 

• In the 1970s, the province boycotted lettuce and grapes to support farm workers’ efforts for justice. 

• In the 1980s, the Providence Associate program began for lay people professing and living the Providence charism. 

• In the 1990s, the provinces co-sponsored the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center in Seattle.

• In 2002, General Superior Kathryn “Kitsy” Rutan, a native of Great Falls, Mont., and former member of the Mother Joseph Province Leadership Team, became the second U.S. citizen to lead the international community in Canada, the United States, Chile, El Salvador, Argentina, Egypt, the Philippines, Haiti and Cameroon.

Celebrations are planned on Dec. 8—the actual anniversary—in Burbank, Calif., Great Falls, Mont., and Portland, Ore., as well as in Spokane, Walla Walla, Yakima and Seattle.

In Spokane, there will be a closing event at 6 p.m., during vespers in the chapel at Mount St. Joseph, 9 E. Ninth Ave.

In Yakima, there will be a renewal of sisters’ vows and Providence Associates’ commitments at the 5:30 p.m. Mass at St. Joseph Church.

Sister Helen Mason and area Providence Associates are planning a liturgy for the 5:30 p.m., Mass at St. Patrick Church in Walla Walla. 

The Seattle event will be at the 6:30 p.m., Mass at St. Joseph Residence, 4800 37th Ave. SW.

For information, call 474-2306.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © November 2006