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That remarkable group of women

submitted by Katherine Keniston
Portland, OR

“To me, as we grow, we don’t have to necessarily be the first, or the biggest; we simply need to stay concerned for the poor and vulnerable and we need to meet the needs of people today. It is about how good we can be – in the service to others.” – Sister Rita Ferschweiler, S.P., Providence Health & Services in Oregon

While Oregonians were celebrating their new statehood in 1859, just across the Columbia River a remarkable group of five women were making history of their own. They had completed an arduous journey from Montreal, Quebec, two years earlier, stepping off a steamer at Fort Vancouver in the Washington Territory.

These pioneering Sisters of Providence in their distinctive black habits settled into a land where there were no hospitals, few schools, and scant charitable services for people suffering the misfortunes of frontier life. The sisters were led by a skilled carpenter and architect of great compassion and vision named Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Equipped with simple tools, enormous gifts for creating and building, and a deep faith, Mother Joseph and her sister companions set to work teaching children and giving tender care to the poor and vulnerable.

The Sisters of Providence went on to build hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the elderly and shelters for the mentally ill. In 1875 they established Oregon’s first permanent hospital, St. Vincent Hospital, which began as a three-story wooden structure in northwest Portland.

“Sometimes in dealing with…challenges, I think of that group of women….I think of them facing great need with limited resources – and of their loving, giving hearts.” – Russ Danielson, chief executive, Providence Health & Services in Oregon.

Over the decades, the Sisters of Providence health care ministry has evolved into today’s Providence Health & Services. People of Providence continue the sisters’ works by living a Mission of revealing “God’s love for all, especially the poor and vulnerable, through our compassionate service.” Providence serves communities in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, California and Montana.

In Oregon, the not-for-profit Providence Health & Services operates seven hospitals – Providence St. Vincent Medical Center and Providence Portland Medical Center in Portland, Providence Milwaukie Hospital, Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, Providence Newberg Medical Center, Providence Seaside Hospital and Providence Medford Medical Center. Providence also includes physician clinics, health centers, home care services, health plans, and care centers for medically fragile children and older adults. With some 16,000 employees, Providence is now Oregon’s largest private employer.

Providence provided Oregonians with more than $165 million in community benefits during 2008, including more than $77 million in free care to patients in need. The work of serving the poor and vulnerable remains as real today as when Mother Joseph knelt to comfort an orphan child or to ease an elder’s pain.

“What is truly wonderful about working at Providence Medford Medical Center is that sense and feeling that the Sisters of Providence still walk our halls.”
– Elaine Ritchey, R.N.