Her nimble peasant fingers could do anything, cook, sew, work wood and write lengthy letters. Born in the Canadian village of Saint-Elzéar, her parents, Joseph and Francoise Pariseau, named her Esther. A petite child, she often worked beside her father in his carriage shop. Her mother taught her embroidery, reading and writing. Today Esther Pariseau is better known as Mother Joseph (1823-1902).
Her father traveled to Montreal in 1843 and presented Esther to the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor at the Diocese of Nisqually. (The name was later shortened to the Sisters of Providence.) Her father extolled Esther’s talents, adding one day she’d make an outstanding superior. The order accepted the 20-year-old, renaming her Sister Joseph. For the next several years, while managing the group’s kitchen, bakery, garden and wood shop, she cared for the poor and ill.
Needing help in Oregon Territory, Augustin-Magloire Blanchet, the bishop of Nisqually, requested several sisters in 1852. Sister Joseph volunteered but was too valuable to send. Four years later, she got her chance when Bishop Blanchet made a second plea for help. Sister Joseph found herself in charge of the four nuns traveling from Canada across the Isthmus of Panama to the St. James Mission near Fort Vancouver, Washington Territory.
Disembarking at Vancouver from the ship Brother Jonathan, the nuns walked about a mile to the bishop’s place only to find three rough 10-feet-square rooms and a passageway that led to the school, the kitchen and the church. The nuns slept in the building’s unfurnished loft. They opened Providence Academy, the Northwest’s first parochial school, with seven little girls three weeks later.
Shortly after, a penniless 85-year-old man appeared, and Mother Joseph took him in as well. Once again, Mother Joseph was caring for the poor and sickly. Early records show the nuns listed 34 night watches at the homes of the ill. They also taught, gardened, cooked and maintained the bishop’s house.
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