Montana’s First Nuns

The first white women to cross the Coeur d’Alene Mountains were four Sisters of Providence: Mother Mary of the Infant Jesus, Sister Mary Edward, Sister Paul Miki, and Sister Remi. These noble women came in response to a call made by Father Peter De Smet, S.J., for Sisters to open a boarding-school for the Indian girls at St. Ignatius Mission, Montana. They left the Mother-House in Montreal June 1, 1864, traveled by way of New York, the Isthmus of Panama and San Francisco, and reached Vancouver on the 11th of July. Two months were there spent in preparation for the long mountain journey to be made on horseback, camping out at night. On September 17, the eve of the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, the principal feast of the Sisters of Charity of Providence, the travelers set out on their tedious way. The party consisted of the four sisters, three Jesuit Fathers, and two men who had charge of the provisions and other necessaries.

Although many and great hardships were encountered, the Sisters were happy, and after three weeks of this mode of travel the first part of their journey came to an end on October 5, when they reached the Cceur d’Alene Mission. Here the Indians lined the river banks, eager to greet and shake hands with the lady black-robes. They rested two days at the Mission and then started on the second and more difficult part of their pilgrimage. Father Palladino, S.J., in his Indian and White in the Northwest, speaks of this journey as follows:

“The road was now through thick, impenetrable forests and over the rugged Coeur d’Alene mountains. Steep ascents, deep ravines, fallen timber, streams and gulches lay in their path, and the difficulties and inconveniences of the travel before them were greater than those they had encountered. But the Sisters were by this time inured to all manner of discomforts and bore these as they had at first, not only bravely and without complaint, but with a buoyant and sparkling cheerfulness.”

The end of the journey was reached October 17, and the first Sisters in Montana took up their lodgings in a log cabin, which had been prepared for them by the Jesuit Fathers, until the large school building that was under construction should be completed. They began at once the education of the Indian girls, and thus was opened, at St. Ignatius’ Mission, in what is now the Diocese of Washington, the first Indian boarding-school in the Northwest. The following years were years of hardship and privation, but the mission on which the Sisters were sent was fulfilled. They toiled early and late for these children of the forest, and no pains were spared to teach them the love and practice of virtue, the knowledge of household work and of gardening, besides the plain branches of education. Visiting and tending the sick Indians was and still is one of the Sisters’ favorite employments.

The log cabins of former years have given place to large, commodious buildings equipped with every modern improvement. Nine years after the settlement made at St. Ignatius’, on a rainy afternoon in April, 1873, another little colony of Sisters arrived at Missoula. They, too, were from the Mother-House in Montreal. Mother M. Julian, Sister M. Victor, and Sister M. Edward found their lodgings even less commodious than were those provided for their Sisters among the savages. They took up their quarters in a small frame building in which was not a single article of furniture. That same afternoon they cleaned and fitted up a room for a chapel, and there Father Palladino, S.J., said Mass next morning. This little oratory was the first church at Missoula and was used as such for many years.

The Sisters devoted themselves to teaching the children of the neighborhood and caring for the poor and the sick. Each succeeding year saw their missionary work increasing and an addition of some kind made to the buildings. In 1884, St. Patrick’s Hospital was erected. It is considered one of the best institutions of its kind in the state. The Academy of the Sacred Heart was built in 1885, but soon proved too small. The beautiful structure which now stands on the academy grounds was completed in 1901. There is an average yearly attendance of four hundred day pupils and boarders. St. Joseph’s School for boys is an annex to the Sacred Heart Academy.

The institutions under the direction of the Sisters of Providence, in the States of Idaho and Montana, were in 1890 erected into a province under the patronage of St. Ignatius, and Sacred Heart Academy was selected as the provincial house. The other houses of the province are: St. Mary’s Convent, De Smet, Idaho, established in 1870 for the instruction of the Indian children of the Cceur d’Alene Reservation; St. Clare’s Hospital, Fort Benton, Mont., founded in 1885 for the care of the poor; Providence Hospital, Wallace, Idaho, built in 1891, has proved a boon to the Cceur d’Alene miners. A great number of patients are here each year prepared for a happy death, who would otherwise meet their Maker wholly unprepared. The Columbus Hospital, at Great Falls., Mont, was commenced in 1892 in a small frame building. It has developed into a large institution, fully equipped with accommodations for over one hundred patients; a training school and maternity hospital are carried on in connection with it.

Our Lady of Lourdes Convent at Wallace, Idaho, was founded in 1904. The object of the establishment is to impart a Christian education to the children of the district, who stand much in need of instruction in the principles of our holy religion.

The Catholic Church in the United States of America, Undertaken to Celebrate the Golden Jubilee of His Holiness, Pope Pius X (Three Volumes), II: The Religious Communities of Women (New York: The Catholic Editing Company, 1914), 104-107.

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