The pioneer individuals who represent the state of Washington in the United States Capitol are both religious leaders: Marcus Whitman (1802-1847), a Presbyterian missionary doctor; and Mother Joseph of the Providence Sisters (1823-1902).

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Faith & Values |

Rather remarkably, the pioneer individuals who represent the state of Washington in the U.S. Capitol are religious leaders: Marcus Whitman (1802-1847), a Presbyterian missionary doctor, and Mother Joseph of the Providence Sisters (1823-1902).

Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, made an extraordinary team. He had wanted to become a minister but could not afford the time-consuming, seven-year curriculum. So instead, he studied medicine for two years with an experienced doctor and received his M.D. degree. Narcissa was eager to become a missionary, but as a single woman had been forbidden to do so.

Stirred by reports that the Western Indians were seeking teachers and the white man’s “Book of Heaven” (the Bible), the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions sponsored the newly married couple.

Arriving in what is now Eastern Washington in 1836, they soon found that the Cayuse were not all that interested in the Bible, but valued the medical miracles that Dr. Whitman provided and the education that Narcissa gave to the Indian children, especially the practical skills of weaving, sewing and so forth.

Whitman also knew that the Cayuse could not survive the white-settler influx unless they gave up their seminomadic ways and adopted agriculture. He worked tirelessly to introduce viable, inventive methods such as water-driven power to mill the grains.

But the swelling number of white settlers coming through the Oregon Trail and often stopping off at the mission for medical attention or replenishment of food supplies created an increasingly tense situation with the native peoples.

Their lack of immunity to diseases, such as measles, fostered the suspicion that Whitman was causing the death of his Indian patients. The Indian tradition holding medicine men personally responsible for the patients’ recovery led to the murder of the Whitmans and nine others in their party, including their adopted sons, in November 1847.

The other notable religious leader representing the state of Washington is Mother Joseph. Her father introduced his 20-year-old daughter (Esther Pariseau) to the Sisters of Providence in Montreal: “I bring you my daughter, Esther, who wishes to dedicate herself to the religious life. She can read, write, figure accurately, sew, cook and spin. She can even do carpentering, handling a hammer and saw as well as her father. She can also plan for others and she succeeds in anything she undertakes.”

Thirteen years later, in 1856, Mother Joseph led a group of five sisters to begin a mission in Vancouver (Washington Territory). Her father had not exaggerated. She was amazingly competent, highly organized and an inspiration to others.

An architect and artist, she designed the buildings and supervised their construction. To finance new buildings and their work, Mother Joseph launched “begging tours.” She and the sisters spent weeks on horseback going to mines as far away as Montana and Colorado to appeal to lucky prospectors for donations.

Their records tell of outwitting stagecoach robbers; of surviving severe storms; and of brushes with fire, wolves and even a grizzly bear.

At age 78 and dying of a brain tumor in 1902, she said, “Sisters, whatever concerns the poor is always our affair.”

Mother Joseph designed and/or supervised construction of 29 schools and hospitals, one of which was Providence Hospital, Seattle’s first hospital. Known as “the Builder,” she is recognized as one of the first architects of the Northwest.

She gave credibility, in and out of the church, to women’s skilled and determined leadership. She is a great example of the extraordinary contribution of Catholic nuns to the well-being, not just of Catholics, but to the common welfare of all the people of the Northwest.

Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to