The University of Providence continues the 165-year heritage of Catholic education in the tradition of the Sisters of Providence, who opened their first school in the Montana Territory in 1864.
The heritage of the University of Providence has its roots in nineteenth-century Montreal, where a woman named Emilie Tavernier Gamelin founded the Sisters of Providence in 1843, following the deaths of her husband and three children.
Compelled by the love of Christ and inspired by the example of Our Mother of Sorrows, these early Sisters of Providence dedicated their lives to the care of children, the poor, the sick, and widowed.
Under the direction of Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the Sisters of Providence came to the Pacific Northwest in 1856, where they founded the first permanent hospital and school in the Washington Territory. Today, the ministries of the Sisters of Providence continue to serve the State of Montana through Providence Saint Patrick Hospital (Missoula), Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center (Polsen), Saint Thomas Child and Family Center (Great Falls), and the University of Providence (Great Falls).
The Sisters of Providence first arrived in Great Falls in 1892 to open the city’s first hospital, upon the invitation of the Reverend Father J. James Dols, first pastor of Saint Ann’s Cathedral. The Sisters of Providence founded Columbus Hospital in 1892 and Montana’s first nursing school, Columbus School of Nursing, in 1894.
In July of 1929, at the request of Bishop George J. Finnigan, CSC, Bishop of Helena, Mother Gaudentia and Sister Lucia Sullivan of the Sisters of Providence began planning the establishment of a normal school for the training of teachers in Missoula, Montana. In the Diocese of Great Falls, the Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula (Ursulines) began drawing plans for the establishment of a junior college for women in Great Falls, Montana, in 1930.
Realizing the potential conflict of having two Catholic colleges for women in the same state, the Bishops of Helena and Great Falls pushed for a consolidation of these establishment efforts into a single women’s college under the direction of the Diocese of Great Falls. In June of 1932, Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara of Great Falls announced the opening of the proposed junior college with the purpose of enabling “young women of Eastern Montana to receive the valuable training of a Catholic higher education.” Named the College of Great falls, the institution would quickly develop into a collection of academic ministries “conducted by the Ursuline Religious in conjunction with the Sisters of Providence.”
The Very Reverend Father J.A. Rooney, STL, MA, was named the first President of the College, with Sister Lucia Sullivan of the Sisters of Providence and Mother Ignatius of the Order of Saint Ursula serving as his advisors and acting administrators. The college’s first classes were offered at the Ursuline Academy.
In 1933, Sister Lucia Sullivan of the Sisters of Providence established a normal school for the training of teachers. Though independent from the junior college, the normal school was often considered to be part of the larger College of Great Falls ministry. Courses were held in the recently remodeled Our Lady of Providence Hall at Columbus Hospital, a location which inspired the college to name Our Lady of Providence the patron saint of the institution. By 1934, the College of Great Falls would transfer the bulk of its classes, as well as the Registrar and Records offices to Our Lady of Providence Hall.
In 1937, the College of Great Falls became coeducational, and by 1938 transitioned from being solely a junior college with certificate options to a four-year institution offering baccalaureate degrees to the students of the College as well as Columbus nursing students.
By 1942, the Ursuline Order withdrew from the College of Great Falls, resulting in the closure of the institution’s associates degree program. As a result, the Diocese of Great Falls would hand over full sponsorship of the college to the Sisters of Providence in 1943. In this same year, the Sisters of Providence elected to end the usage of the title of “Normal School,” and simply refer to the entire liberal arts institution as the College of Great Falls.
In 1944, the Sisters of Providence purchased land south of the City of Great Falls on 20th Street. Through the 1950’s the Sisters of Providence worked in conjunction with the Very Reverend Father Jacob Donovan, second president of the college, to establish plans for the new campus. Under the leadership of Sister Rita of the Sacred Heart, third president of the college, the College of Great Falls moved from its location on the campus of the Columbus Hospital to its new eleven-building campus in the Fall of 1960. Designed by Page Werner Architects, the new campus cost the Sisters of Providence over $3 million to complete.
In 1964, the iconic Providence Tower was added to the campus chapel, followed by the opening of the McLaughlin Memorial Athletic Center in 1965. With the growth of a formal men’s intercollegiate basketball team, the College selected the Argonaut as its mascot in 1967.
Many of the University of Providence’s traditions revolve around the Catholic tradition, or the heritage of the Sisters of Providence who founded our institution. Every academic year begins with the celebration of the Mass of the Holy Spirit, quickly followed by campus commemorations of the Feast of Blessed Emilie Gamelin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence.
October 17th is Founders Day at the University of Providence, commemorating both the founders of the University of Providence and the first Sisters of Providence to arrive in the Montana Territory on October 17, 1864.
In December, the campus community celebrates the arrival of the Christmas season with the celebration of Lessons and Carols, a candlelit ceremony of caroling and scripture in preparation for the birth of Christ.
The Lenten season at Providence is often marked by the commemoration of the Via Matris (a traditional devotion to Our Mother of Sorrows), while the Easter Season is highlighted by the annual Mass of Christian Initiation.
Every academic year ends with the celebration of the Baccalaureate Mass at which graduates participate in the annual “Pin Ceremony,” a tradition for Providence schools dating back to 1856. A special pinning ceremony is also held for all UP RN-BSN (nursing) graduates on that day.
Beyond rituals, however, one of the greatest traditions of the University of Providence is its spirit of compassionate service, expressed every year in the countless hours of community service completed by students, faculty, and staff. Service forms the living tradition of the Sisters of Providence.