Spirituality for Today – May 2010 – Volume 14, Issue 10

A Story for Vocations
'The Builder' A.K.A. Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart

By Sister Lou Ella Hickman, I.W.B.S.

Mother Joseph kneels in prayer, cast in the bronzed strength befitting her faith and courage. This place of prayer is not the usual church or shrine but the Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C. Each state is allowed to honor two individuals from its past; so when Washington sent its gift in 1980, Mother Joseph became the first and only religious sister to be among the notables of American history. Especially during this election year, she is a fitting model for those seeking "the more" in life.

A photo of the Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C.

Canadian by birth, Mother Joseph arrived in the Washington Territory in December of 1856. The many skills she had learned from both her father and mother would help her transform a wilderness into facilities that would serve the poor for the next 150 years. When she died at the age of 79, she and her community of sisters had built 29 hospitals, schools, orphanages as well as homes for the elderly in the territory comprising Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and southern British Columbia. This list also includes five schools for Indians. She also began the first school of nursing in 1892 in Portland and started an innovative form of medical insurance called a "ticket" costing the huge sum of ten dollars a year.

Mother Joseph's adventures began when she left her convent in Montreal at 33, with five other sisters. They traveled some 6,000 miles to the Pacific Northwest- arriving in the dead of winter. Her sisters would endure further hardships when they later went on begging tours to help finance their work. Stagecoach robbers, severe storms, fires, wolves, and a grizzly bear dotted their trek in their search for donations. Perhaps the most difficult hardship was the hostility they encountered. One sister wrote, "At our arrival the people were so prejudiced that they prevented the sick from coming to us…"

Mother Joseph didn't just oversee her building projects; she often became personally involved. She would tear out shelves that had been poorly constructed and rebuild them herself. Once she even knocked down a chimney and demanded that the workmen redo it properly. Yet Mother Joseph was as adapt at embroidery and sewing as she was in architecture, carpentry, farming, and various other trades that were reserved for men only. Her nickname, "the builder," was apt and well-earned.

One incident shows another side of Mother Joseph's business sense. When her sisters went on their begging tours, she made sure she sent the prettiest one to collect donations from the servicemen in Vancouver. She knew it would be hard for the men to say "no" to a pretty face. Yet this builder and businesswoman also took time to play with the orphan children she and her sisters housed.

She died as she had lived; devoted to the poor. The last words to her sisters summed up a life dedicated to Jesus' admonition to care for the least: "My sisters, whatever concerns the poor is always our affair."

The inscription on her statue reads: "She made monumental contributions to health care, education, and social work throughout the Northwest." Yet Mother Joseph did more than merely erect buildings; she helped to build lives. And because she did, her life was one of great adventure. That adventure could also be yours as well- why not consider her legacy's invitation to be a religious sister? You may not have a bronze statue created in your honor but if you allow Adventure to find you- your reward will be definitely out of this world.