Departure: Montreal, Arrival: New York City, November 3, 1856
“Very soon the bell tower of Providence, our happy home, was lost to view.” So wrote Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart in 1881, some twenty-five years after the sisters’ courageous leave-taking from Montreal, their families, the motherhouse, their sisters—from all they knew.
New York City around the time of the arrival of Sister Joseph's party. (Lithograph by Theodore Muller, 185-, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.)
The party that traveled to New York was nine: Sisters Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Praxedes of Providence, and Blandine of the Holy Angels; postulants Adelaide Theriault (later Sister Vincent de Paul) and Helen Norton (later Sister Mary of the Precious Blood); Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet and Father Louis Rossi; Mother Caron and a coadjutrix, Sister Wilson.
In selecting a specific date for departure, there were practical considerations. The ships leaving New York for Jamaica, the first leg of their journey, left only once a month, which would put them in Vancouver in December. Blanchet knew that if they delayed departure until December and arrived in Vancouver in January, they ran a greater risk of running into a freeze on the Columbia River. And so, our travelers would take the SS Illinois, a United States mail steamship scheduled to sail from New York on November 5, 1856.
On November 3, the group left Montreal, then a city of about 58,000 souls, and made their way by ferry, train and boat, from icy Lake Champlain down the Hudson River to the cacophony and chaos of the great port of New York, a metropolis of some 700,000 people. A hackney cab conveyed the group to a dingy and dilapidated boarding house in a rundown neighborhood that had been recommended to them. Shown to their wretched room, the travelers must have been discouraged, but Mother Caron, mindful of the suffering in their midst, reminded the sisters that they should have no better lodging than the poor whom they served.
However, such humble lodging was not to be their fate. A friend of Blanchet, Denis Sadlier, an Irish-Catholic who with his brother ran publishing houses in New York and Montreal, and who had been anxious to greet them upon their arrival, overtook the party at their boarding house and advised them that they were in a dangerous neighborhood and risked losing their possessions (if not their lives) to thieves. Sadlier brought them to the more upscale Delmonico Hotel, whose Irish-Catholic proprietor welcomed the travelers and made them comfortable.
Sadlier reminded the party that there was a presidential election, which accounted for some of the noise and activity in the streets below. Democrat James Buchanan, who would win the election to become America’s fifteenth president, was running against Republican John Fremont, and former president Millard Fillmore of the Know-Nothing Party, which opposed Catholic immigration and influence. Later that day, at the suggestion of the maitre d’hotel, the sisters donned their religious habit once again, and he assured them that it would be safe. They must have been relieved, after some had ridiculed the out-moded secular clothing given them in Montreal.
Voyage of the SS Illinois, slated for November 5th, was delayed until the 6th so that it could forward news of the presidential election onto ships bound for the West Coast. This left the sisters time to visit with other religious in the city, including the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, whose superior gave Mother Caron a sewing machine to take back to the Asile in Montreal.
Sister Joseph of the Sacred Heart was encouraged as she took time to record in writing the private vow of perfection that she had made at the Mother House on November 1st. She mailed it back to Montreal before departing on the next, more exotic leg of their journey.
Journal and Letters of the Five Foundresses,1856. Record Group 13: Mother Joseph Collection. Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington.
Chronicles of Providence Academy, Vancouver, 1856-1875. Record Group 22: Providence Academy. Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington.
The Bell and the River by Mary of the Blessed Sacrament McCrosson, S.P., Pacific Books, Palo Alto, Calif., 1957.
The Institute of Providence: History of the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor Known as the Sisters of Providence, Sisters of Providence of Montreal, vols. II and V (1949).