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Grants at Work: The Providence Academy and the Legacy of Mother Joseph

The Providence Academy is a unique jewel in the community of Vancouver, Washington, and is overseen by a Murdock Trust grantee, The Historic Trust. The Academy’s 7,000-square-foot ballroom is a popular wedding and event space, and small businesses work out of its 65 offices. The iconic silhouette of the Academy’s bell tower, with a view of the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, has been a part of Vancouver’s skyline for over 140 years, but not many people know the story of its designer, builder and founder, Mother Joseph.

Born in Quebec in 1823, Esther Pariseau entered the convent of the Sisters of Charity of Providence when she was 20 years old and took the name Sister Joseph in honor of her father. In 1856 she was chosen to lead four companions as missionaries to the Pacific Northwest. The two-month journey encompassed a storm-tossed ocean adventure along the Eastern Seaboard, an excursion across the Isthmus of Panama on the backs of mules, another ship ride to San Francisco and finally over the Columbia River Bar to Vancouver.

In the early 1870s, Mother Joseph, considered by many to be Washington’s first female architect, began planning a permanent home for Providence of the Holy Angels. She designed and supervised construction of what is now called the Providence Academy. A stickler for detail, Mother Joseph often inspected rafters and bounced on planks to ensure their support. The sisters and their orphans and boarders moved into the Academy in 1874. Mother Joseph supervised construction of a large addition in 1891, but otherwise, the exterior of the building remains much as it was built.

The Academy’s 300-pound, 28-inch-diameter bell was dedicated in 1878 by Bishop Blanchet. Some of the original statues that were carved by Mother Joseph have been removed, but visitors can see her craftsmanship in the molds for scrolls at the pillar tops and the five carved altars. Besides building the Academy, Mother Joseph was responsible for the completion of eleven hospitals, seven academies, five schools for Native American children, and two orphanages throughout an area that encompasses Washington, northern Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Mother Joseph passed away in 1902 at Providence Academy. The Academy functioned as a school and orphanage until it closed in 1966, with the graduation of its last class of 28 students. The Hidden family, whose ancestors had produced the bricks to construct the building, purchased the building in 1969 and began bringing it back to life by leasing space to small business tenants. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. In 2015, with support from a Murdock Trust grant, the Historic Trust purchased the Academy to restore and maintain it as a regional asset.

The Academy’s function as an orphanage and a school over the years, and now as a business and event space, make it a unique historic landmark, having touched thousands of lives in many ways. The Murdock Trust is proud to support this historic building, a regional treasure in our own backyard.