Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



The Bishop Writes

"Sisters of Providence: 150 years in the West"


by Bishop William S. Skylstad

(From the Aug. 24, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

The celebration of a 150th anniversary in our part of the world is rather unusual.  On Saturday, Aug. 5, in Spokane, the Sisters of Providence celebrated the 150th anniversary of their arrival in the West. The gathering saw representatives come from Providence provinces in Chile and Western Canada, Mother Joseph Province (which includes the Northwest), and from the motherhouse in Montreal. In fact, the order’s Mother General, Sister Kathryn Rutan, comes from the Mother Joseph Province. Our Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes was packed.

Their legacy of this past century-and-a-half is filled with tremendous accomplishments in the name of the Gospel. (Editor’s note: See “Sisters of Providence: 150 Years in the West,” IR 8/3/06, and posted in the IR’s section of the diocesan web site: http://www.dioceseofspokane.org) Beginning with the arrival of Mother Joseph and the other Sisters in 1856, over 30 hospitals, schools and homes were established in the Northwest and British Columbia.  Since the Sisters’ arrival in 1856, 125 health care, education, and social service institutions were established. Of these, 68 are still active, employing some 45,000 people. What a tremendous accomplishment!

My first indirect contact as a youth with the Providence Sisters came though my mother. She attended St. Joseph Academy in Sprague as a young girl. I remember her telling one story after another about the boarding school, obviously an institution that had touched her profoundly.

In 1980, I was honored to be present for the unveiling of the statue of Mother Joseph in Statuary Hall in our nation’s Capitol. Governor Dixie Lee Ray, then governor of our state, was there.

There have been lighter moments as well. About 15 years ago, I was part of a civic event for Sacred Heart Medical Center. I was teamed with the late Sister Peter Claver, who was then administrator of Sacred Heart. The two of us were to model two types of outdoor activity. I was assigned a Nordic ski outfit, and she was dressed and equipped appropriately for duck hunting, including a shotgun! Still, one had to be with her only a few minutes to pick up her very serious commitment to health care, especially for the poor and vulnerable.

The Providence Sisters were founded by Blessed Emilie Gamelin in Eastern Canada. She was a young widow when she established the community in 1843 to serve the poor and needy. Thirteen years, later Mother Joseph and four Sisters headed out to the Northwest to begin their mission. The journey alone must have been daunting. I’m sure they knew when they left they would never return home or see their families again. They were profoundly committed to their mission and calling. That courage, bravery, and generosity paid off big time, the results of which we see so readily today these 150 years later.

Our reflection over this past century-and-a-half places in clear perspective the work of a community of women Religious, and what the community does for the individuals, and what individuals do for community. At the sesquicentennial celebration, six jubilarians of the Providence Sisters were also honored. Their combined service totals 360 years. Their backgrounds reflect humble circumstances. Yet community had made possible many ministries and development of gifts that have been a blessing not only to the Church but to the broader community as well. In our increasingly complex world, values like community, commitment, mission, development of gifts, and spirituality remain very important and, indeed, life-giving.

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit becomes clear and evident through the history of the Sisters’ ministry. We can think about the work of the early Church and how visibly the Holy Spirit touched the Church not only at Pentecost, but in the early days of her existence. People’s lives were dramatically touched, and the Spirit worked through so many. Why should it be any different today? It isn’t. The signs of the work of the Holy Spirit are all over. The theme of the Sisters of Providence celebration, “Celebrating God’s Favor,” reminds us of how God has blessed us in and through their mission and service. Other communities of women Religious have certainly blessed us as well. We need to be grateful.

Remembering the past and celebrating the moment are important for us. But jubilees also point us to the future. The mission continues, and we are the ones who are to respond. The needs are there. We remember the words of Jesus as he begins his public ministry in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, therefore he has anointed me… to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind… to announce a year of favor” (Luke 4:18 ff). We too have been anointed and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Along with Jesus, we can make his words come alive in our day by who we are and how we respond to God’s call in our hearts and in the Church. 

Blessings and peace to all.


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