Arrival in Vancouver: Waters of Grace & A Little Vine Entrusted, December 8, 1856
Notice from The Weekly Oregonian (Dec. 13, 1856 issue) announcing the arrival of the ship in Astoria, Oregon, that continued on to Vancouver, W.T. Heading the passenger list are the church pioneer missionaries and "Sisters of Charity" who would later be known as Sisters of Providence. (Microfilm courtesy of Washington State Library, Olympia, Washington.)
When the sisters rose on the morning of Monday, December 8, their excitement must have been palpable. What must have been going through their minds? It was 67 days since the General Council accepted Bishop Blanchet’s request for missionary sisters for his Diocese of Nesqually and 36 days since their departure from Montreal. After weeks of travel with varying degrees of comfort, heat and humidity, discovery of new and sometimes shocking cultures, perilous travel, and spiritual privations, the distant unknown was now at hand.
At 6 a.m., the steamer Columbia left its berth at the Astoria wharf to reach its destination of Portland via Vancouver. Vancouver—the name must have stirred many emotions in the hearts of the travelers. Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet may have thought about the failed mission in 1852, looking forward to firmly establishing this second group under his supervision. Father Louis Rossi must have been eager to begin his missionary endeavors, his life's passion. Sister Joseph of the Sacred Heart may have thought about the full weight and responsibility that would now be hers as superior of her companions and the missions they would establish. Sister Praxedes of Providence may have thought about the orphans they would care for and, as Sister Joseph’s assistant, must have shared her anxiety of administering the works. The novices, Sisters Vincent de Paul and Mary of the Precious Blood, may have reflected on their continued spiritual formation and dedication to the mission. And, Sister Blandine of the Holy Angels must have thought about the Native Americans she longed to care for. This was the reason they had entered religious life and why they had willingly accepted dedicating themselves to traveling 4000 miles to an unknown land. After the unnerving experience crossing the Columbia River Bar, could anything worse lay ahead?
As they sailed, the banks of the Columbia River evoked memories of the St. Lawrence River miles away in Montreal. The sisters admired the sights of this new land they would now call home: crystalline waters, dense forests, cliffs, sandy flats scattered with Indian cabins, tree trunks, and ships’ wreckage. Their hearts rose in prayer, “May the waters of grace fertilize the little vine that is entrusted to us!”
When they reached sight of Fort Vancouver, the travelers craned their necks and stood on crates to catch sight of familiar signs of a town. “Many times during the voyage, [we] had tried, in vain, to learn a little bit about the premises where we were going to stay. Monseigneur had left us ignorant until the end, of what he had and what he did not have.” Now, they would learn for themselves about this Diocese of Nesqually. Father Rossi, on the other hand, was taken aback by the obvious wilderness. The reality of Vancouver conflicted with his romantic notions of missionary life.
I came back to my bishop and asked him where the town was. “There, there,” he still kept saying, “don’t you see that pole with the flag atop? That’s the military fort. Do you see that house, and the other one over there? Take a good look, that’s the town.” I confess that the description and the vista caused me to lose control of my initial feelings. A spontaneous and quite involuntary gesture betrayed my disappointment. Burying my head in my hands, I exclaimed, “My God! What have I gotten myself into!”
Sister Joseph heard him and begged him to refrain from speaking in such a way in the presence of her companions, knowing that discouragement is a bad friend.
View of the U.S. military post at Fort Vancouver, 1859, three years after the arrival of the sisters. A flagpole stands on the right next to a general's house. (Photo courtesy of Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)
Fort Vancouver operated as outpost for the extensive fur trading network of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) from 1825 to 1849. It represented British territorial interests, yet made American settlement in the Pacific Northwest possible. The inhabitants were primarily French-Canadian, American, and Métis families with French, English, and Chinook the primary languages. At the time of the sisters’ arrival, HBC activities had decreased, the first U.S. Army outpost in the Pacific Northwest was established, and immigration brought increased numbers of settlers to the region. The population of the environs was about 12,000.
Around 3 p.m., on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the travelers disembarked from the Columbia, moored at a small barge that served as a wharf. It was a beautiful winter day; the air held the scent of the grand fir trees and “a little bit of white frost covered the grass, green like in the spring.” Even in this far flung settlement, there was a small group waiting on the shore to welcome them. One man, in particular, stood out.
A few citizens lined the shore, through which we could distinguish a man with long white hair, wearing a blue hood, a white collar rising right to his ears and attached with a large black neckerchief. Sister Praxedes whispered to us: who could this Monsieur be?… Could it be the father Vicar General? How could we have imagined meeting a priest in such a costume, even among the Indians? We were expecting to find the Priest in his cassock! … This dignified Monsieur did not hesitate to come forward; it was the Vicar General [Abbé Jean Baptiste Abraham Brouillet] himself; he gave a kiss on the hand to his Bishop and approached us in a disconcerted manner….
The little group began its trek on a muddy and rutted road to the bishopric about one mile from the landing. Sister Joseph invoked the blessings of Mary on the new mission by throwing a medallion of the Immaculate Conception to the ground in the name of her companions, present and future. And then,
Upon our arrival at the Episcopal Palace (if you want to call a wooden house with three little rooms and a small passage to the kitchen a “palace”), Monseigneur went to his room and we were taken to that of the Vicar General, where we found an image of the Blessed Virgin. Happy for such a good encounter, we knelt at her feet to make together an act of consecration to our Immaculate Mother, as prescribed by the rule, in great solemnity.
…[We recited] the Te Deum, the Stabat and [made] invocations to the Patron Saints in gratitude for such a successful crossing.
Even though they had just experienced 36 days of close travel with the bishop, the sisters’ relationship with him now took on a more formal tone. After completing their prayers, they asked the bishop, according to their Rules, for his blessing on their future works.
Their baggage had been brought to the bishop’s house but was left at the door, a sign that perhaps they were not welcome. Abbé Brouillet confronted the bishop. In his opinion, the country was not ready for the sisters since the 1852 Sisters of Providence missionary group had failed and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur had returned to California. He was convinced that the sisters belonged in Olympia which was a growing community. Beside that, where would they stay? There was not a house available for rent. However,
There was, quite a distance away, an old hovel, but completely exposed to the wind and animals took shelter there. Now, from the room where we were, we could hear everything. At the story of the cabin, Sister Joseph of the Sacred Heart could not hold back any longer, so she politely presented herself and said to the Bishop that they were witnesses to his embarrassment and that she was coming to inform him that she and her sisters would be more than happy to live there [in the hovel]. Mr. Abbot Rossi, with his European ideas, replied rather sharply: “What suits you does not suit us.” It took strength for her to withdraw without obtaining what she and her companions wanted with so much ardor; they were more than happy to have this common trait with the Family of Bethlehem.
The Bishop, who until then had kept silent, said to the Vicar General: “have the suitcases brought in, the Sisters will stay here tonight.” Then His Grace proposed that we see if we could accommodate ourselves for a few days in a little room in the attic. In an instant, everything was concluded.
No doubt, the sisters’ emotions were in conflict. After enduring long travel and privations, could it be possible they were not wanted?
Oh! May Heaven accept the offering of a feeling so painful to our poor nature! We sacrificed everything: our dear Community, our families, our homeland!… They had made us hope that our presence would alleviate the situation of the poor Missionary Priests… eh!… on our first encounter we were, for them, a subject of distress.
In future reflection, however, the sisters recognized that in reality their presence was desired. Abbé Brouillet was in charge of the diocese while Bishop Blanchet was traveling in Europe and Canada. He was directed to build, in Vancouver, a house for the sisters but developments in the territory convinced Brouillet otherwise. Communication was limited, and he had presumed the Bishop would agree with his assessment.
Their residence decided, they tended to human needs; it was time for dinner. The meal was eaten in common with the bishop at the head of the table. “One has to have traveled to know the voracious hunger that one experiences after a long voyage at sea.” Yet, the young sisters were uncomfortable dining with the bishop and held back, eating small portions.
After dinner, Sisters Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Praxedes of Providence, Blandine of the Holy Angels, Vincent de Paul, and Mary of the Precious Blood retired to the attic which “was full of pieces of old carpet, covers, flannels, that the Indians and the Whites had used during the war the preceding winter. With all of this debris, we amused ourselves making camping beds” and they slept for the first night as foundresses of the Sisters of Providence in the Northwest.
Off Oregon Coast, into Columbia River, Dec. 6-7, 1856
First Mass, Dec. 9, 1856
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.
Six Years on the West Coast of America 1856-1862 by the Rev. Louis Rossi, translated and annotated by W. Victor Wortley, Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington, 1983.
The Weekly Oregonian, December 13, 1856. Microfilm courtesy of the Washington State Library, Olympia, Washington.