Sister Praxedes of Providence
Praxedes of Providence, Sister of Providence circa 1870s
When Her Gaze Measured the FieldDesanges Lamothe, the 26th member of the Sisters of Providence, lived under the direction of Mother Emilie Gamelin for six years of her religious life. Born January 20, 1820, at Saint Gregoire de Nicolet, Quebec, she lost her mother when she was just 13 and took charge of raising her six siblings on the farm managed by their father. Later, Mr. Lamothe would become the director and teacher of St. Gregoire School, where Desanges received her education. One of her brothers became a priest and invited Desanges and their father to live with him and she could serve as the cook.
Tragically, after only a few months as parish priest, Fr. Esdras Lamothe, pastor of St. Aime de Richelieu, died at age 28, leaving the young Desanges, age 26, unsure about God’s plans for her future. She consulted her maternal uncle, Canon John Charles Prince, who advised her to apply for entrance to the Sisters of Providence. While in the novitiate, the chronicles relate that Sister Lamothe was “a model of religious simplicity and that her obedience and generosity were remarkable.” The typhus epidemic had come to Montreal with the Irish, and the sisters were called to assist with care of the ill and dying. Normal community retreat days, which preceded the profession of vows, were spent in charity to the sick. Desanges was one of the novices deprived of the annual retreat. On July 21, 1847, she left her work with the very sick patients and pronounced her temporary vows at the Chapel of the Asile during the community Mass.
After profession, the first office of Sister Praxedes was to care for orphan girls at the motherhouse. In 1848 she was named Superior of Providence St. Isidore School on Long Point, where she hired Helen Norton, later to become Sister Mary of the Precious Blood, as an English and French teacher. When Mother Caron selected sisters for the second group of missionaries to be sent to Fort Vancouver, Sister Praxedes was chosen at age 36 to join them. Mother Joseph said in her 1856 letter:
Sister Praxedes of Providence is most helpful to me, thanks to the wisdom of her advice. Her virtue has been tested by harsh trials; her loneliness and distress are such that she feels discouraged at times. However, her deep inner conviction of doing God’s Will and her hope of pleasing Jesus, as she states in those difficult moments help soothe the pain. Since our arrival, she has been at work with courage and precision which make her the soul of our small efforts.
After the arduous journey from Montreal to Fort Vancouver, Sister Praxedes wasted no time in assuming whatever works needed to be accomplished. She was named assistant to the superior and was novice mistress for Sisters Mary of the Precious Blood and Vincent de Paul, in addition to directing the kitchen activities. There were only five Sisters of Providence, but each carried enormous responsibilities which would only continue to expand. Sister Praxedes took on so much, Mother Joseph became concerned about her health.
After eight years in the Washington Territory, Sr. Praxedes was asked to travel to the Mother House in Montreal to attend to some business of the new foundation. She spent two years at the Mother House and was present when the first General Council of the community was formed in 1866. When she returned to Fort Vancouver that year, Mother Philomene, newly elected superior general, accompanied her along with four Sisters of Providence and three Tertiary Sisters (vowed members of the community who performed more manual labor) named for the Western mission. Prior to departing, Sister Praxedes was named Mother Vicariate, known today as Provincial Superior, following Mother Joseph as the first superior. There were now twenty-eight Sisters in the West. Sr. Praxedes would serve in that role for fifteen years. Her contributions were immense. She embraced a life of perpetual labor and devotion to the poor. No Sister was more worthy to succeed Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart as Mother Vicariate than Sr. Praxedes of Providence. The annalist writes,
She had all the required aptitudes to hold the authority: a great penetration of mind, a good judgment, a tireless activity. Her zeal and her charity rendered her able to dare anything, to undertake all things for the glory of God and the salvation of her neighbor. In spite of her natural timidity, Mother Praxedes knew no hesitation when it concerned the extension of the reign of Jesus Christ in these distant regions where obedience had place on her shoulders a laborious mandate. When her gaze had measured the field to be cultivated, whatever were the financial difficulties or the human oppositions….if her conscience told her she had to go forward, she advanced without thought of return, for her zeal had for motive not the thoughtlessness of enthusiasm, but the robust determination of energy dependent on the confidence in God. This confidence was firm and profound. It was according to the Scriptures, a confidence without hesitation and to which successes are promised.
During the fifteen years of her administration, Mother Praxedes founded four hospitals, three Indian schools and two boarding schools. She also had the Vicariate reconstructed and St. Joseph Hospital, Vancouver, rebuilt after it was destroyed by fire.
Although strong of constitution, her body was ravaged by dyspepsia, a pain and uncomfortable feeling in the upper middle part of the stomach. Although this illness was a hard burden, even more difficult was never being able to learn the English language despite being in an office that required her to communicate with numerous others. She relied on other sisters for her correspondence in English in many other business matters.
When Mother Praxedes turned over administration of the vicariate to Mother John of the Cross in July 1881, she was greatly relieved. Although only 61 years old, she looked much older. She gladly accepted taking charge of the sisters’ linens with her quiet humility. Her illness continued to progress and the sisters could see the pain that she suffered in her face from erysipelas in her advancing years. Mother Praxedes of Providence died September 24, 1889. Her final words to the sisters were:
I recommend that you love one another; never say a sharp word. Do not do unto others what you would not want done to yourselves. Love and respect your Superiors; be kind to them. Yes, my dear Sisters, love your duty and be charitable if you wish to attract the blessing of Heaven on yourselves and on the Vicariate of the Sacred Heart.
Mother Praxedes is buried at the St. James Acres cemetery in Vancouver, Washington.
Excerpted from a chapter in Sister Barbara Schamber's unpublished manuscript history of the Sisters of Providence in the West for the community's sesquicentennial.