Plan for Providence Academy site in Vancouver draws opposition, support

A mixed-use development proposed for a portion of the historic Providence Academy property in Vancouver has drawn opposition and support from community members. Photo: Courtesy Marathon Acquisition & Development, Wilsonville, Oregon A mixed-use development proposed for a portion of the historic Providence Academy property in Vancouver has drawn opposition and support from community members. Photo: Courtesy Marathon Acquisition & Development, Wilsonville, Oregon

VANCOUVER – On December 8, 1856, Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart and four sisters landed on the frontier shores of the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver and soon started building more than 30 schools, hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the aged and mentally ill.

Most people agree that the first of those buildings, and the only one still standing — the 145-year-old Providence Academy in Vancouver — must be preserved.

But reaching agreement on a mixed-use development proposed for a portion of the 7-acre property, now owned by nonprofit The Historic Trust of Vancouver, is a different story.

Some say the development — 140 apartments and 13,000 square feet of commercial space — will assure long-term survival of the academy building, which housed Mother Joseph’s headquarters and later a Catholic school that closed in 1966. Others say options besides development haven’t been studied enough.

There is strong support from business leaders, but residents of the area aren’t so sure. Even among local Catholics, there is disagreement about the best route forward for a building that is tied to the early days of the Diocese of Nesqually (later the Archdiocese of Seattle).

Despite their disagreement on other issues, all those involved are adamant about wanting the story of Mother Joseph’s struggle and triumph in the wilderness to be known far and wide.

“There’s a real faith significance with Providence Academy and the work of Mother Joseph, so to be able to tell that story and to represent that portion of the heritage to the community is a real privilege,” Mike True, former president and CEO of the Trust, said at a public meeting of the Clark County Historical Preservation Commission in August. “Let’s not let it fall into disrepair.”

Mother Joseph’s story “is a living story,” said Providence Sister Susanne Hartung, who has spent six decades in religious life. “Our sisters continue the work that Mother Joseph started.”

Mother Joseph of the Sacred HeartMother Joseph of the Sacred Heart arrived December 8, 1856, with four other sisters on the frontier shores of the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver. Clockwise from center: Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Sister Praxedes of Providence, Sister Vincent de Paul, Sister Blandine of the Holy Angels and Sister Mary of the Precious Blood. This photo is a composite; the sisters never sat for a formal portrait. Photo: Courtesy Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington

Saved from the wrecking ball

The Providence Academy building escaped the wrecking ball in 1969 when it was purchased by the Hidden family, owners of the company whose bricks were used in the building’s construction.

In more recent years, even before it became apparent that the Hidden family needed to sell the property, Sister Susanne was involved in fundraising for its future. She attended dinners in Vancouver, spoke to potential donors and told the story of the pioneering nuns’ work in the region, which extended into what is now Washington, Oregon and Montana.

In 2015, the property was sold to the Trust, which preserves and manages historic properties around the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve. The Trust rents space in the academy building to about 65 businesses. That keeps the lights on, True said, but it doesn’t begin to cover the cost of renovating and preserving the structure.

By early 2018, the public learned that Trust had chosen a new path: It would sell a portion of the land to raise enough money to pay off a $30 million debt and assure preservation of the academy building.

In a letter read aloud at the preservation commission’s August meeting, Sister Susanne gave her wholehearted support to the project, adding a voice to the Trust’s mantra that the academy is “just a building, unless we can tell the story.”

A community conversation

Despite strong support from business leaders — including the downtown association and the region’s Chamber of Commerce — residents have expressed reservations about the development.

Last spring, Anne Denniston, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Vancouver, started collecting signatures from people concerned about the project. She stood outside the nearby Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in downtown Vancouver after Masses one weekend, spent two days at the downtown farmers market, left petition sheets for customers at the local Catholic bookstore and started an online petition. All told, Denniston said, she had nearly 600 signatures in a relatively short time.

And Marianne Russell, past president of the proto-cathedral’s historical society, wrote to the preservation commission, saying the Trust didn’t fathom the parish’s emotional connection to Mother Joseph. She regularly brought her orphans to Mass at St. James, just four blocks from the academy, and is buried at the parish’s Mother Joseph Cemetery.

“The Trust betrayed its mission by delegating to a commercial, out of state development firm, with zero preservation experience, the task of interpreting this story [of Mother Joseph], in some unidentified area of the retail complex,” Russell wrote.

Providence AcademyMother Joseph built Providence Academy in 1873. The building housed a Catholic school until 1966; today, about 65 businesses call it home. A mixed-use development is proposed for a portion of the 7-acre site. Photo: Janet Cleaveland

Earlier this year, the Vancouver community pushed back against the original two-building proposal submitted by Marathon Acquisition & Development of Wilsonville, Oregon. The revised plan reduces the footprint of one building and adds a story to the other. The changes aim to enhance the sight lines to the academy building and to enlarge the green space at the site’s major intersection.

The project is working its way through the city’s permitting process, and Marathon hopes to break ground next summer.

But some historians and preservationists, including Sean Denniston of the county’s preservation commission, oppose the project. They say a feasibility study should have been done to examine all options, and that the scale of the proposed buildings will overshadow the academy, blocking the view of it from the west.

Those assertions don’t sit well with John McDonagh, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, and a member of St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver. He has worked with the Trust since it acquired the academy building and said the organization has been diligent about looking at all the options for paying off its loan and preserving the academy building. The Marathon project will get the Trust the money it needs, McDonagh said, and bring “tremendous economic development downtown.”

The view of the academy from the west, where the development would sit, “hasn’t been anything in the 40 years I’ve been here,” McDonagh said. But the project plans will open up a major intersection, providing the best view of the historic building, he said.

Carolyn Pleny, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Vancouver and head docent at the academy, said it is time for the next chapter in Mother Joseph’s story.

“Instead of opposing [the project], let’s take this opportunity to get involved and help,” said Pleny, a member of Providence’s final graduating class.

“The Trust is walking in Mother Joseph’s footsteps in trying to tell the story,” Pleny said. “Let’s preserve the story and share it with as many people as we can.”

Tour Providence Academy

Drop-in tours of the historic Providence Academy building in Vancouver are offered from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Tours last 60 minutes. Group tours can be requested through The Historic Trust of Vancouver website.

Providence Academy is located at 400 E. Evergreen Blvd. For information, call 360-433-9787.

Janet Cleaveland

Janet Cleaveland is a member of the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver.