Life of Esther Pariseau, Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart

Here is a summary of Mother Joseph’s life. For any questions or further information, don’t hesitate to contact us.

“My dear sisters, allow me to recommend to you the care of the poor in our houses, as well as those outside of them. Take good care of them; have no fear of them; assist them and receive them. Then, you will have no regrets. Do not say: ‘Ah! This does not concern me; let others see to them. My sisters, whatever concerns the poor is always our affair.”

Mother Joseph’s last words

Childhood and Youth

Esther Pariseau was born on April 16, 1823, the third of twelve children born to Joseph and Françoise Pariseau on their farm in Saint Elzéar, Quebec, Canada. She was raised in a rural lifestyle, where daily requirements demanded that she excel at household tasks. Esther’s father was a respected coach maker; she spent much of her time as a youth with him in his shop, learning carpentry and design skills. At 17, Esther was enrolled in a boarding school.

Beginnings in the Congregation

In 1843, Esther Pariseau was twenty years of age when she learned that Ignace Bourget, Bishop of Montreal, founded a new religious community of women: the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor, also known as the Sisters of Providence. An idea sprouted and at the end of the same year, Joseph Pariseau presented his daughter to Emilie Tavernier Gamelin, Superior of the Congregation. He said, “I bring you my daughter Esther, who wishes to dedicate herself to the religious life… She can read and write and figure accurately. She can cook and sew and spin and do all manner of housework well. She has learned carpentry from me and can handle tools as well as I can. Moreover, she can plan and supervise the work of others, and I assure you, Madame, she will someday make a very good superior.”

As a novice, she was trained in nursing in the sisters’ pharmacy and infirmary. She also assisted the treasurer. On July 21, 1845, Esther made her vows and received her name in religion, Sister Joseph. She began as director of the elderly women boarders; then she took charge of the community’s financials. In the late 1840s, Sister Joseph added to her duties the care of the sisters afflicted by typhus. As Mother Gamelin herself lay dying of cholera in 1851, Sister Joseph was the nurse at her bedside. After the foundress’ death, Sister Joseph proved herself a valuable asset to the community in the following difficult years. In 1852, she was named as assistant to the community’s new superior, Mother Caron.

Sisters Respond to the Needs of the Pioneers in the West

In 1856, after the first unsuccessful attempt, the Sisters of Providence sent a few of their own to help the pioneers in the American Northwest. Bishop Bourget dedicated the new mission to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and bestowed a new name on its young superior; from this time on, she was known as Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Sister Joseph led a group of four Sisters of Providence from Montreal to Fort Vancouver, in the Washington Territory, where they arrived on December 8 after a month of arduous travel.

On their arrival, the sisters did not even have a place to live. They soon established works and built buildings to shelter themselves. They opened a boarding school, later known as Providence Academy. In 1858, the sisters opened St. Joseph Hospital, the first permanent hospital in the Northwest. They also welcomed orphans and mentally ill persons. Mother Joseph loved being with the children, praying with them, sharing pancake suppers and little treats, teaching the ways of family,  religion and work.

Mother Joseph also championed the incorporation of these charitable works, understanding that civic recognition would enhance the stability of the institutions while protecting the sisters’ rights under the law. To support the works, she and her companions took lengthy, dangerous trips by horseback and riverboat to the mines, begging for charity.

A Tireless Builder

After ten years of service as superior of the western missions, Mother Joseph was named treasurer, with responsibility for construction of all the sisters’ buildings in the region. Over the next 25 years in this ministry, she traveled thousands of miles to establish additional schools and hospitals, begging for the funds to support them. Despite her active nature, she was remembered by her contemporaries as a deeply

spiritual woman: “… ever since my entry into religious life, I have made it a habit to pause before the chapel door whenever I pass it, and beg our Lord to hide me in His Divine Heart, and send a ray of light into mine. He has given me more than a ray; He has given me a flame…”1 She was devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and worked throughout her life to spread this devotion and the reliance on Divine Providence.

In 1899, she was treated for breast cancer and resumed her work until the cancer metastasized to her brain. Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart passed away on January 19, 1902 at the age of 79, after 57 years of religious life.

[1] McCrosson, The Bell and the River, p. 262-263.

Honored Memory

Mother Joseph’s contributions to education, health care, and social services continue to be recognized more than a century after her death. In 1980, she was named as Washington State’s second representative in the National Statuary Hall, in Washington, D.C.  Later the state legislature passed a bill declaring her birthday, April 16, as Mother Joseph Day in Washington State. The corporation Mother Joseph established in 1859 is acknowledged as a “Pioneer Corporation in Washington State” and the vibrant health care network she created remains largely in place today.

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