Providence St. Amable Academy / St. Michael School Olympia, Washington: Collection Inventory, 1879-1994 

Providence St. Amable Academy, now known as St. Michael School, is one of the Sisters of Providence most enduring foundations. Opened by the sisters in 1881, the academy served local families, the children of visiting legislators, and boarders from throughout the South Sound region. Never a prosperous establishment, the school found new life when it was transferred to parish administration in 1926. The sisters continued to teach at St. Michael School until the early 1970s, leaving a strong legacy of Catholic education in Olympia.


The Sisters of Providence established Providence St. Amable Academy, Olympia, Washington, in 1881, at the request of the Reverend Peter Hylebos, Pastor of the local St. Michael Parish. Father Hylebos knew the religious community from his previous assignment at St. Francis Xavier Mission, Cowlitz Prairie, Washington, where the sisters had opened a school in 1876. Mother Amable, Superior General in Montreal, Quebec, gave permission for the new foundation, which was named Providence St. Amable Academy, in honor of her patron saint (St. Amabilis).

On August 22, 1881, Sister Benedict Joseph, Superior, and Sister Mary Gabriel traveled by train from Vancouver, Washington, to Olympia, where they were joined several weeks later by Sister Providence of the Sacred Heart, assigned to teach music and French. The three sisters transformed a small building provided by the parish into a makeshift school and convent. Classes opened September 18, with 35 girls enrolled, a "good number" according to the chronicles. During this first year the sisters also welcomed three boarders and an orphan into their home, visited and cared for the sick of the town, and provided nearly 500 meals to people in need.

Within a few years the sisters were able to purchase land on which to build a permanent school, financed through begging tours, bazaars, and the support of a few generous townspeople. Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart planned and supervised construction of an 80- by 54-feet, two-story, wood frame building, located between Columbia and Main at Ninth. Sisters and students gratefully moved into the school on February 13, 1884. There were few amenities and no luxuries, but larger classrooms and for the first time, space for a chapel.

With the new building and the addition of another sister to the faculty, it was possible to admit boys to the school, at first sporadically and then on a permanent basis. The high school program continued for girls only, and soon developed into a full academic preparation for teaching and business careers.

The sisters also began receiving the sick and injured, caring for them in a small outbuilding until the religious community opened St. Peter Hospital in 1887. Providence St. Amable was never a prosperous mission, but the hospital flourished and was soon able to help support the school. To save money during the 1895 depression, the sisters and their few boarders moved into the hospital, located only a few blocks away, and remained until it was feasible to reopen the boarding school in 1899. During these years, the teaching sisters helped to care for the patients on the weekends.

When Providence St. Amable Academy celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1906, enrollment had grown to 103 day pupils and 25 boarders, with 7 sisters on the faculty. The Silver Jubilee was marked by an all-school reunion and organization of an active alumnae association.

Gradually, the school became known simply as Providence Academy, or Providence Academy Olympia ("PAO") to distinguish it from Providence Academy in Vancouver. A two-story annex built in 1914 provided an auditorium, separate dormitory for the sisters, and space for a library and home economics classes, among other improvements.

Despite a good reputation and a growing number of students, the Academy continued to struggle financially. In 1926, St. Michael's new pastor, the Reverend Michael P. O'Dwyer, sought to resolve the problem by assuming administration of the school. Somewhat reluctantly, the sisters sold the property, building and equipment to St. Michael Parish for the sum of $11,000, with which the debt was paid. Although relieved of the financial burden, the sisters also relinquished control over curriculum and the larger school program. Father O'Dwyer suspended the high school and boarding department, and at the end of the term, Providence Academy officially became St. Michael School.

The sisters adjusted to these changes by arranging for a few of their former boarders to live at St. Peter Hospital while continuing at the school. They also organized a religious sodality for the older girls who would now have to attend the public high school, and began offering Sunday religious education classes at both St. Michael's and its mission church in Tenino.

The school building deteriorated during the Depression and was severely damaged by a fire in 1939. Father O'Dwyer launched a fund-raising drive for a new school, but it languished through the war years. The effort took on greater urgency in 1949, when the city condemned the second and third floors of the 1884 building. Seven months later, ground was broken for a new school and convent, about one mile from the original site.

On July 31, 1951, the sisters occupied the new convent and began preparing the school for its inaugural term. The campus was dedicated October 14, by the Most Reverend Thomas A. Connolly, Archbishop of Seattle. After two decades of planning and fund-raising, the new St. Michael's opened just in time to accommodate the children of the post-war "baby boom." What was left of Mother Joseph's old building was razed before the end of the following year, the property becoming a parking lot.

After a decade of rapid growth and relative prosperity at St. Michael School, the 1960s brought change and experimentation, in both the sisters' lives and the school program. As sisters retired or moved into new ministries, the number available for assignment to the school declined. St. Michael's first lay principal was hired in 1968, and the last Sister of Providence left the faculty at the end of the 1972-1973 term. Sisters continued to live in the convent until 1976, and then served the parish in various ways for some years after.

St. Michael's continues today as Olympia's only Catholic school and the oldest parochial school in the Archdiocese of Seattle.

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The Providence St. Amable Academy/St. Michael School collection comprises primarily chronicles, administrative correspondence, the sisters' local community records, early student records, and financial files, with a small amount of supporting materials. Materials in the collection date from 1879 to 1994, with the bulk from 1910 to 1970. Of particular depth and interest are the early student records and account ledgers (1881-1930s), which form a valuable genealogical resource. The history of St. Michael Parish is also represented in the chronicles, correspondence, and subject series.


The records are arranged in twelve series, housed in 15 boxes plus 9 oversize volumes (6.5 linear feet). The series are: history, administration, personnel, local community, curriculum, student activities, Parent Teacher Association, financial, facility, reports, subject series, and newsclippings.


The Sisters of Providence Archives is a private repository; access to some records is at the discretion of the Archivist.

Preferred Citation:
[Title of cited item and/or series]. (62) Providence St. Amable Academy/St. Michael School, Sisters of Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington.

Accession Information:
These records were transferred to the Archives from the Sisters of Providence Provincial Administration or from sisters at the school over a period of years.

Processing Information:
Processed in 2001 by Terri Mitchell, Assistant Archivist.

Separated Material:
A nice collection of photographs and a few artifacts are housed and catalogued separately. The Apostleship of Prayer Diploma Pro Directore Locali, 1913, is located in oversize materials.

Related Material:
A property survey drawn in September 1919 by Sister Anatolie is found in the oversize ledger entitled Inventaires des Immeubles de la Province du Sacre-Coeur (Inventory of Buildings of Sacred Heart Province).

The records of the education apostolate and the Education Division of Sacred Heart Province contain related correspondence, reports, and the annual "school bulletin," a detailed record of enrollment statistics, student involvement in ancillary groups (e.g. Sodality, safety patrol), and special programs (music, vocational preparation, etc.). Also found here is a detailed description of the curriculum adopted by the province in 1894.

The student newsletter, Nonpareil, 1899-1903, published at (22) Providence Academy, Vancouver, Washington, includes occasional reports of the students and activities at Providence St. Amable Academy, Olympia, as well as the sisters' other academies in the state. The Way it Was in Providence Schools, by Sister Dorothy Lentz (1978), includes a brief history of the school from its foundation through 1926, taken primarily from the chronicles.

See separate index for articles printed in the periodicals Caritas and The Good Work, published by the Sisters of Providence, Sacred Heart Province.

After 1973, the activities of the sisters living in the St. Michael convent and ministering in the parish are recorded in the Chronicles of the Vancouver and Olympia, Washington Region. These chronicles include only brief mention of the school program and the sisters' involvement.

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