Our History in Oregon


In early 1859 Archbishop Francis Norbert Blanchet (1795-1883) of the Oregon diocese sent a letter to Ignatius Bourget (1799-1885), Bishop of Montreal asking for a religious teaching order to establish schools in his vast diocese. Bourget approached the Sisters of the Holy Names in Longueuil and received a favorable reply. On June 22, 1859 Blanchet arrived in Montreal to begin preparations for the new mission. Twelve Sisters were selected for the journey and the date of departure was set for Sept. 16, 1859.

The party set out from St. Lambert, Quebec, on a train bound for Troy, NY. At Troy, they boarded the steamer Francis Skiddy, arriving in New York City on Sept. 17. A three-day rest with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart bolstered the spirits of the travelers before they boarded the steamship Star of the West and departed from New York City.

Life on the steamship revolved around two things: concerns about the weather and recurring bouts of seasickness. Thanks to the presence of Archbishop Blanchet and other priests, Mass was said on occasion. Along with other devotions, the Sisters were able to keep some semblance of their daily routine. The ship captain, while not a Catholic, was gracious in allowing space for their ceremonies and in ensuring that proper solemnity be observed. The Sisters were aware that these rituals created a novel spectacle for their fellow shipmates, among them General Winfield Scott (1786-1866), national hero of Mexican War fame. Scott was traveling to the Northwest to settle a dispute with the British over San Juan Island and would be a friend to the Sisters throughout the journey.

The following day, the vessel entered the Gulf of Mexico and passed Cuba. On Oct. 2, the town of Aspinwall on the Isthmus of Panama was announced. Upon landing, the party spent one more night aboard ship, waiting for the morning train that would transport them overland to Panama City, located on the Pacific Ocean. Once there, they quickly settled into small vessels for the transfer to the steamship The Golden Age. Missing the transfer vessels, which could only operate at high tide, would mean being carried to the boat on the shoulders of a native—an embarrassing situation that the Sisters wished to avoid.

After several days at sea, the ship docked briefly at Acapulco, Mexico before sailing on, arriving on Oct. 16 in San Francisco. The Sisters welcomed two days ashore, which they spent with the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy and the Presentation Sisters. This sojourn revived them for the last leg of the journey, aboard the steamer Northerner.

In addition to the usual seasickness and rough seas, the ship took fire on the night of Oct. 20. Although the flames were quickly extinguished, the vessel still had to cross the Bar of the Columbia in dense fog. After a harrowing night, the ship arrived at Fort Vancouver early the next morning. The Sisters were greeted by old friends from Quebec, the Sisters of Providence, who had recently established their presence in the vast diocese.

When the 12 intrepid Sisters of the Holy Names finally set foot in the town they would now call home, Oregon had been a state for eight months. Portland’s population in 1855 was just over 1,200, making it the most populous city north of San Francisco and the major port on the Willamette River. Its first Catholic Church, on the corner of Third and Stark, was dedicated in 1852. Nevertheless, to the eyes of the newcomers, the sight of Portland was probably disappointing, consisting as it did of wood frame structures and only a handful of brick buildings.

Upon reaching their new home, a two-story, unpainted frame building with two small wings located on Fourth Avenue between Mill and Market Streets, the Sisters opened the door to discover that their residence, recently inhabited by vagrants, was in no state to receive them. Its interior lacked even the most rudimentary supplies and furniture. Two Sisters immediately undertook an expedition to the stores to purchase needed supplies, including blankets and a kitchen stove, while the others cleaned. That night saw the Sisters bedding down on the floor with their satchels for pillows, as they had no beds or bedding.

In spite of this unpromising beginning, the Sisters immediately set to work preparing to open their school. A third wing, intended to serve as a boys’ school, was begun on the northwest corner of the block. On Nov. 6, a few short weeks after their arrival, the Sisters opened St. Mary’s Academy to the girls of the city.


These dedicated Sisters, only a few of whom were fluent in English when they arrived, created a rich learning environment for their young pupils. Several were talented artists and musicians, and these disciplines became school trademarks—as well as a way for the fledgling community to generate additional income through private lessons. Some had strength in math or catechism; others in writing. Two Sisters tended to cooking, cleaning and caring for the sick.

Two young women graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in 1867, becoming the first of what would grow to more than 10,000 graduates from what is now the oldest continuously operating high school in Oregon. Two years later, the Sisters welcomed Jane Kelley (Rose de Lima), who became their first U.S. novice.

With the success of the Portland mission, other Sisters were sent to Oregon, spreading across the state to found missions and open or teach in schools in Oregon City (1860); St. Paul (1861); Salem (1863); The Dalles (1864); Jacksonville (1867); Grand Ronde (1874); and Baker City (1875), in addition to other Portland schools.

As the Oregon mission grew, Sisters traveled north to establish Holy Names schools in Seattle (and later, Spokane). There was rejoicing in 1893 when they received a state charter to confer baccalaureate degrees, enabling the establishment of St. Mary’s College, the first liberal arts college for women in the Pacific Northwest. In 1906, the Sisters purchased property near Oswego, OR to be used for the college and a home for orphans. In addition, during the next few years they opened normal schools in Spokane, Seattle and Marylhurst to provide teacher training and certification. 1911 marked the dedication of the Convent of the Holy Names in Marylhurst – a name the Sisters created from the name of Mary, mother of Jesus, and hurst, meaning woods.

Bigotry reared its head in the 1920s. Mother Mary Flavia informed businesses supporting the Ku Klux Klan of a boycott by the Sisters. Tensions rose, leading to passage of the 1922 Oregon Compulsory School Law that required children to attend public schools. The Sisters challenged the law and took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor in the landmark 1925 decision Pierce vs. Society of Sisters. By striking down the law as unconstitutional, the court cleared the way for parents to choose where and how to educate their children.

Caroline Gleason, a faculty member at St. Mary’s Academy, became interested in the conditions of working women. In 1912, she was hired as the field secretary for the Catholic Women’s League in Oregon, and accepted an assignment from the Oregon Consumers League to organize a staff to survey women’s working conditions in the state’s factories, stores and offices. Oregon’s passage of the nation’s first minimum wage and maximum hour law in 1913 was based on her research. She became a Sister of the Holy Names in 1916, taking the name Sister Miriam Theresa, and continued to serve in both education and government roles until her death in 1962.

In the 1930s, Holy Names Sisters traveled far to minister to those in need. In 1932, some were in Kagoshima, Japan but on the advice of Japanese friends, they withdrew shortly before the start of World War II.

The Oregon Province divided and the SNJM Washington Province was founded. Yet at a peak in membership growth and vitality, religious life was transformed by Vatican II in the 1960s. Sisters responded with an in-depth study of the charism of Mother Marie Rose and education in the faith, inspiring new beginnings focused on present-day needs. They also considered new forms of belonging, establishing Associate membership for lay women and men who share the desire to live the SNJM charism.

In 1973, Holy Names Sisters founded an agency to provide re-entry services to ex-offenders in Eugene, OR. In the following years, additional social service ministries were built up, ministering to Hispanic migrants, prisoners and the elderly as well as providing pastoral care in hospitals and for those afflicted with HIV/AIDS.

St. Mary’s Academy and other Holy Names high schools thrived and grew. In 1984, the U.S. Department of Education gave St. Mary’s its Blue Ribbon Schools Program award (the first of three times the school was honored with the award).

Collaborating with numerous other religious communities, the Sisters of the Holy Names co-founded the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center in Seattle in 1991. Catholic, ecumenical, interfaith and other organizations combined their resources and efforts through IPJC to address issues of peace and justice in the Church and the world, with a particular focus on the Pacific Northwest. In 2001, some of the Sisters participated in writing the Northwest Bishops’ pastoral letter, “The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.”

The Sisters opened Mary’s Woods, a continuing care retirement community for both Sisters and lay residents built onto and occupying parts of the Convent of the Holy Names in Marylhurst, in 2001.

In 2006, the U.S.-Ontario Province was formed, uniting the five predominantly English-speaking provinces of the Congregation. One year later, the Holy Names Heritage Center was dedicated as a place for the Province’s archives as well as a source of public educational programs in history, social justice and the arts.

Sisters of the Holy Names in the Pacific Northwest and St. Mary’s Academy celebrated their sesquicentennial in 2009.