Sister Providencia, Advocate for Landless Indians

Sister Providencia, 1980, book in hand.

Born Denise Hortense Tolan in Anaconda in 1909, Sister Providencia is pictured here in 1980, after years of working in collaboration with Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest, the National Congress of American Indians, and other Indian-led organizations to advance the cause of Indian people. Photo courtesy Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington.

In 1952, a nun teaching sociology at the College of Great Falls committed herself to alleviating poverty among the city’s Indians. What began as an effort to solve a local problem grew into a twenty-year crusade on behalf of all American Indians, taking Sister Providencia Tolan from Great Falls to Congress. In the process, she collaborated with charitable organizations and Indian advocates to change the course of federal Indian policy.

Great Falls’ Indian residents lived primarily in makeshift communities like Hill 57 on the edge of town. Their overcrowded shacks lacked utilities. Many were unskilled, undereducated seasonal laborers who struggled to provide for their families. For years, concerned citizens donated necessities to provide stopgap assistance. While supporting these efforts, Sister Providencia also approached the matter as a sociologist: studying the problem, ascertaining its root causes, and advocating social and political solutions.

One cause of the urban Indians’ plight was the matter of jurisdiction. The federal government denied responsibility for unenrolled, non-recognized, or off-reservation Indians. City, county, and state agencies frequently refused assistance out of the misconception that all Indians were wards of the federal government.

Compounding the jurisdictional conundrum were two federal Indian policies instituted in the 1950s that increased Indian landlessness and poverty: Termination and Relocation. Under Termination, the federal government dissolved its trust responsibilities to certain tribes. Deprived of services and annuities promised them in treaties, terminated tribes liquidated their assets for immediate survival. When the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe was terminated in 1953, some families moved to Great Falls to live with their already impoverished relatives on Hill 57. The Relocation policy also moved Indian families to cities without ensuring that they had the means for long-term survival. Meanwhile, the government did not increase aid to states or counties so that they could cope with the expanding numbers of people in need. Continue reading

“Becoming Better Citizens of Our Adopted Country”:  Montana’s Ethnic Women’s Groups

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Cornish women in Anaconda came together to form the Daughters of St. George, shown here picnic at Gregson Springs, July 30, 1925. MHS Photo Archives 941-933

 “Thanksgiving Day is over and we have Women’s Meeting Sale at Elling Rogenes and it is quite enjoyable when there are so many Norwegians together,” Rakel Herein wrote in her daybook in 1917. Two years later, a March entry reads simply, “Have had Women’s Meeting. . . . Yes it was extremely delightful.”

Herein arrived in Carbon County in 1899 as a twenty-year-old immigrant from Norway and married a local Norwegian immigrant sheep farmer within the year. Translated years after her 1943 death, her scattered, terse daybook documents the birth and growth of five children and a lonely, despairing life. This context makes her descriptions of Red Lodge’s St. Olaf Lutheran Church women’s group—“delightful” and “enjoyable”—that much more telling. Herein yearned for the companionship and support of women who understood how hard it was to immigrate to a foreign, male-dominated western landscape. She found that companionship and support within the Women’s Meeting.

Herein’s Women’s Meeting was one of hundreds of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana women’s groups. Montana women gathered whenever they could under a wide range of banners: to pursue education, art, community improvement, children’s activities, homemaking, health, their families’ occupational interests, and church growth and stability. Typically, these women’s groups supported the status quo, celebrating their members’ primary roles as mothers, wives, and daughters; yet for the women themselves, they were lifelines leading out of their homes and into a larger world. Continue reading

Early Social Service Was Women’s Work

A nun and children looking through the rubble after the 1935 Helena earthquake.

St. Joseph’s Home for Orphans fulfilled one of the missions of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Earthquakes in 1935 left the children homeless and they spent nearly two years as the guests of wealthy U. S. Senator James E. Murray at Boulder Hot Springs. Photo courtesy Independent Record

Parochial institutions in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana, which were almost exclusively under the supervision of women, were the forerunners of our modern social services. Catholic nuns, Methodist deaconesses, and nondenominational Christian women offered comfort, sanctuary, and stability to the lost, the desperate, and the destitute. Their contributions were far-reaching and some of their pioneering services evolved and remain viable today.

Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth (Kansas) came to Helena in 1869 at the invitation of Jesuit priests who saw a dire need for feminine influence in the rough-and-tumble gold camp. The sisters’ mission was threefold—to teach youth, care for orphans, and minister to the sick—and it fit in with the real needs of the frontier community. St. Vincent’s Academy, the first boarding school for non-Indian girls, opened in 1870 and educated girls until 1935. Continue reading

Elizabeth Clare Prophet, the Church Universal and Triumphant, and the Creation of Utopia in Montana’s Paradise Valley

Elizabeth Claire Prophet poses on  Elizabeth Clare Prophet poses in Paradise Valley, on Church Universal and Triumphant property, in this early 1990s photograph. Courtesy Bozeman Chronicle

Elizabeth Clare Prophet poses in Paradise Valley, on Church Universal and Triumphant property, in this early 1990s photograph. Courtesy Bozeman Chronicle

Elizabeth Clare Prophet was a magnetic—and polarizing—New Age religious leader based in Montana’s Paradise Valley. At the height of her career, her teachings attracted an estimated fifty thousand adherents, her predictions of a coming nuclear apocalypse garnered national media attention, and her survivalist approach alienated many of her Paradise Valley neighbors. The story of Prophet and the Church Universal and Triumphant illustrates the growing popularity of New Age mysticism in the late twentieth century. It also serves as an interesting (if somewhat sensational) case study for how the Montana landscape can be imbued with spiritual meaning.

Elizabeth Clare Wulf was born in New Jersey in 1940. Though raised by nonreligious parents, she became a Christian Scientist at the age of nine. While attending Boston University in 1959, she met Mark Prophet, who through his group, The Summit Lighthouse, held seminars on ideas about spiritual enlightenment that dated back to the late 1800s. After marrying Prophet, Elizabeth joined her husband as a leader of The Summit Lighthouse, then took control of the group after his death. In 1975 she founded the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), which was based on Lighthouse teachings, which combined elements of mysticism, Christianity, Eastern spirituality, self-sufficiency, patriotism, and anticommunism.  Continue reading

Faith Inspired Early Health Care

Beginning with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1869, women religious played a vital role in providing health care for Montanans. Here Sister Camille (near instrument stand) and Sister St. Charles assist Doctors (left to right) Thomas H. Pleasants, Fred Attix, and Joseph Brice with a 1909 surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewistown. MHS Photo Archives 949-002

Beginning with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1869, women religious played a vital role in providing health care for Montanans. Here Sister Camille (near instrument stand) and Sister St. Charles assist Doctors (left to right) Thomas H. Pleasants, Fred Attix, and Joseph Brice with a 1909 surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewistown. MHS Photo Archives 949-002

Catholic sisters and Protestant deaconesses established and refined health care in Montana. These dedicated women brought better medical care to the sick and played important roles in the evolution of nursing in the state.

The first five Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas came by stagecoach to Helena in 1869. Within a year, they established St. John’s Hospital, the first Catholic hospital in the territory. These sisters were Montana’s first trained nurses.

The sisters began canvassing Montana’s remote camps on horseback, begging funds to establish a hospital in Deer Lodge. St. Joseph’s saw its first patients in 1873 and went on to serve Deer Lodge for ninety years. Among other acts of service, the sisters tended the wounded after the Battle of the Big Hole in 1877. They cared for casualties among both soldiers and Nez Perce at the battlefield before returning to Deer Lodge with their patients under terrible conditions; once at the hospital, the sisters found maggots infesting the combatants’ wounds.

Three more sisters traveled from Leavenworth in 1875 to Virginia City to open St. Mary’s Hospital. One of them, Sister Irene McGrath, was a young novice barely eighteen. By 1879, the mining camp had dwindled and patients were few. The sisters were never meant to be ornamental, and so they moved on.  Continue reading