As Mother Joseph lay dying in January 1902, she is said to have whispered to the nuns clustered about her, “Sisters, what ever concerns the poor is our affair.”
This was the guiding tenet in the long and fruitful life of Vancouver’s most famous woman. She left behind a testimony a long record of help for orphans, elderly, the sick and downtrodden.
Born Esther Pariseau in St. Martins, Canada, on April 27, 1823, she grew up in French-speaking Canada. As a child, she learned carpentry and embroidery along with reading and writing, all skills which were to prove valuable during her life of service.
In December 1843, she entered the convent of the Sisters of Charity; an order formed the previous March in Montreal.
Across the continent, in Vancouver, Washington Territory, a call went out for nuns and five were sent, leaving Montreal Nov. 3, 1856, and arriving in the hamlet just before Christmas. Mother Joseph was among the five.
Their church, an old Hudson’s Bay Co. building, was scrubbed clean and decorated with evergreen boughs. Then the nuns, lead by Mother Joseph, began building their new convent, a 16-by-24 foot building with four windows and a glass-paneled door.
During the ensuing 46 years, Mother Joseph’s achievements included an orphanage, pioneer school, home for the aged and a hospital. She led the way in the design, financing and actual construction of Providence Academy in 1873, along with the building of 37 other establishments on the West Coast.
One minute Mother Joseph was seen doing delicate embroidery work, the next working with hammer, saw and carpenter’s level. It is said that one night she knocked down a crooked chimney, forcing the workmen responsible to rebuild it right the next day.
Toward the end, Mother Joseph lost the sight of one eye and suffered great pain from a brain tumor. However, her only thoughts up to her death on Jan. 19, 1902, were for others.