On a cold December day in 1856, more than 30 years before Washington became a state, five Catholic nuns from Montreal arrived at the small settlement of Fort Vancouver on the banks of the Columbia River. While the sisters knew little about their destination, their mission was clear: serve the community’s unmet needs, particularly those of the poor.
Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart and four other Sisters of Providence quickly opened their humble home to orphans and the elderly. Thus began an amazing history of compassion and care across Washington, a legacy that has expanded into a five-state, not-for-profit health and services network with more than 60,000 employees.
During their first two years in Vancouver, Mother Joseph and the Sisters opened St. Joseph Hospital, the first hospital in the Pacific Northwest, and Providence Academy, the region’s first permanent school.
Wherever they traveled in the Washington Territory, they found need and a way to serve it. They opened schools in Steilacoom, Walla Walla and the Tulalip Reservation. They built hospitals across the state – Providence Hospital in Seattle in 1877, followed by St. Mary Hospital in Walla Walla in 1880, Sacred Heart Hospital (now Sacred Heart Medical Center) in Spokane in 1886 and St. Peter Hospital in Olympia in 1887. In 1891, they opened St. Elizabeth Hospital (now Providence Yakima Medical Center) and St. Ignatius Hospital (now Whitman Community Hospital) in 1893.
Mother Joseph was the visionary leader of the Sisters’ work in Washington state and beyond. She designed and supervised the building of many of the hospitals and schools. At the time of her death in 1902, the Sisters operated 17 hospitals and eight schools in Washington, Montana, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, California and Alaska, with several missions in western Canada.
In 1980, Mother Joseph was named Washington’s second representative in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, DC. In 1999, the Washington legislature passed a bill declaring her birthday, April 16, as Mother Joseph Day. More than a century after her death, her contributions to health care, education and social services continue to be recognized across America.
Following Mother Joseph’s death, the Sisters continued to grow their existing ministries and open new ones across Washington – including Providence Hospital in Everett in 1905, Mount St. Vincent in West Seattle in 1924 and Spokane’s St. Joseph Home for the Aged (now St. Joseph Care Center-West) in 1925.
With ministries up and running across the state, the Sisters of Providence entered an era of administrative focus to ensure these resources would be around for generations to come. Times were changing. Health care was a business, as well as a calling. The professionalization of health care demanded new administrative systems, organizational structures and regulatory compliance. In the 1960s, Vatican II led to sweeping changes in religious life. Many nuns left their traditional roles in health care, increasing the urgency to bring more lay professionals into the organization to carry out the mission.
Leading their health care ministries through the challenges of the 20th century strengthened Providence for a new era of growth. Today’s milestones are less about building new hospitals, and more about teaming up with like-minded organizations to advance health care access, affordability and excellence.
In 2012, Providence Health & Services formed a unique affiliation with Swedish Health Services, a not-for-profit, community-sponsored health system. Swedish serves Western Washington communities with acute care medical centers and primary care and specialty clinics. Together, Providence and Swedish are working to improve health care quality, increase access and reduce the cost of care in all the communities we serve.
Washington is a very different place than it was on that December day in 1856. Yet the mission of the Sisters of Providence remains a living inspiration – a wellspring that brings fresh energy, innovation and passion for service to the people of Washington.
Discover how five Catholic nuns from Montreal began building the foundation for modern health care across Washington state – more than 155 years ago.