Sister Ethelbert, “having undertaken the rough trip to Kootenay … fell sick on the way… and our dear Sister was called home to God.”24
The Mystery of Ethelbert
This post is a rewrite (July 2021) thanks to new information and research. For the original see here: https://inthewindermere.home.blog/2020/08/26/ethelbert_original/
According to the accepted origin story for the naming of Mount Ethelbert, first described in 1910/1911: “Mt Ethelbert [was] named by Captain Armstrong for the first nun to ascend the river. She died on board the Captain’s boat, Ptarmigan, and was buried as Sister Ethelbert.”1 A closer look suggests that this story is only partly true.
The Sister Ethelbert referred to in the story is Sister Mary Ethelbert, born Mary Madeleine Newlin in November 1858 in Iowa to parents Ferdinand Newlin and Beulah Palmer.2 Her father was a schoolteacher, and Mary was the eldest of an eventual nine children (including two sets of twins).
The family moved around somewhat, starting out in Ingraham Township in Mills County, Iowa,3 before moving slightly south to Center Township in Pottawattamie County by 1870. In this second location Mary’s father goes from being listed as a school teacher to a farmer.4 It could be that farming didn’t suit, as just two years later the family moved to Umatilla County in Oregon, and her father was once again a school teacher.5
According to a later remembrance, Mary Newlin was raised a Protestant but converted to Catholicism at age 15, shortly after arriving in Oregon. That same source claims that through her “influence”, the rest of Mary’s family also converted to Catholicism.6 Mary became a novice at the age of 19, in about 1877, “and her fervour increased and one could admire in her the virtues of a real Novice.”7
There is not a great deal immediately available online about Mary’s early career as a nun. She joined the Sisters of Charity of Providence, which established and ran a number of missions in western North American, including schools and hospitals.8 By 1886 the sisters had constructed some seventeen institutions in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, with a further sixteen institutions built by the end of the century.9
St Mary’s Hospital
In the summer of 1886, the Sisters of Charity of Providence chose a location in New Westminster for a new hospital, and began to solicit funds to build it. Sister Ethelbert was involved in this effort from the beginning: on 1 September 1886 she, along with Sister John of Calvary, went on a “begging mission” into the interior, working out of the Mission at Kamloops for the next month to collect about $2,000 in donations from Kamloops and the surrounding district (calculating inflation from this period is tricky: safe to say this is over $50,000 in 2020 dollars).10
The new St Mary’s Hospital was blessed by the Bishop of 24 May 1887, with a total of 15 beds.11 The Hospital also provided meals, including to many who could not pay, and the Sisters visited the sick in their homes.12 When the hospital was opened it was staffed with five nuns, including Sister Ethelbert. In 1891, the Canadian census confirms that there were five nuns under the Mother Superior and that, of the six, Sister Mary Ethelbert was the only one not born in Québec.13
As a side-note of local interest, St Mary’s Hospital was built with significant involvement of Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, who also oversaw construction of the St Eugene residential school near Cranbrook in 1890.14 The Sisters of Charity of Providence are noted as providing staff to St Eugene’s in the 1890s.15
St Mary’s Hospital in New Westminster had no government funding, so its operating costs had to be raised through other efforts. A major source was through a medical insurance plan, in which tickets were sold for ten dollars each entitling the holder to medical and hospital care for one year from the date of issue.16 This scheme was supplemented by fundraising expeditions to railway and logging camps.17
As the hospital relied so much on fundraising, expeditions to raise money became a regular task of Sister Ethelbert. Already mentioned is her “begging expedition” to Kamloops in autumn 1886. Her name appears again in September 1887 as being in Donald B.C. in order to collect funds for St Mary’s.18
Another trip, in July 1892, is recounted by Sister Ethelbert’s companion in her memoirs, Elizabeth Schoffen (Sister Lucretia). The journey was to logging camps described as being “north… on the islands in the Gulf of Georgia (near Alaska).”19 (This description is confusing: the “Gulf of Georgia” appears to be another name for the waters and islands in the Strait of Georgia, off Vancouver Island, which is nowhere near Alaska):
Sister Lucretia goes on to express her gratitude in having Sister Ethelbert as a companion on this trip, “because I knew that she was not a trouble-maker, but a truly good and sisterly person.” The two tried to converse with each other, “on some other than the written religious subjects,” but the exchanges were minimal.
According to Sister Lucretia, this was Sister Ethelbert’s seventh trip, “on a mission of this nature,” so it is likely that Ethelbert went on at least one “begging expedition” for the hospital every year from 1886.22
An Early Death
Just over a year after her “begging expedition” to the Gulf of Georgia, in November 1893, Sister Ethelbert went to Portland from where she and her Mother Superior travelled somewhere in the Kootenays. According to her obituary, “It was during this expedition where she took sick.”23 Another remembrance recounts that Sister Ethelbert, “having undertaken the rough trip to Kootenay … fell sick on the way and had to be taken to New Westminster. An absess [sic] to the stomach degenerated in poisoning and our dear Sister was called home to God.”24
Sister Mary Ethelbert passed away on 11 September 1894. Her funeral was held out of St Peter’s Cathedral in New Westminster, and “was the largest funeral held in the city for some time.”25 She was buried at St Peter’s Roman Catholic Cemetery.
There is still some confusion about the story of Sister Ethelbert. I have been unable to find information confirming where in the Kootenays Sister Ethelbert was travelling when she became ill, or more detail about the timeline of her trip and illness. The Conrad Kain Society recently made a plaque about Mount Ethelbert, on which it is stated that Sister Ethelbert “fell overboard” one of the steamboats, “took ill and died soon after.”26 This does not match with the account of a stomach abscess, but if this were the case it would have had to occur while steamboats were operating (sometime after April 1894).
Unfortunately I have been unable to find a death certificate for Sister Ethelbert, which might contain more information. I was also unable to find any mention of the Sisters travelling through the Upper Columbia Valley and Golden in the months before Sister Ethelbert’s death (although it is certainly possible that such information was not recorded).
There are other questions remaining about the exact series of events that prompted Captain Francis Armstrong to name the mountain Ethelbert, as the story as it first appears in print remains largely unsupported. It’s still unclear exactly how Captain Armstrong knew Sister Ethelbert. It could be that she travelled through the area in 1894, and/or that she was at some point the first nun to travel on one of the steamboats. It’s evident, however, that contrary to the story, Sister Ethelbert was never a passenger on the steamboat Ptarmigan, which was not launched until March 1903.27 Had she travelled via steamboat through the Windermere Valley during the 1894 season, it would have been on either the Hyak or the Duchess.
There is at least one question that this research might answer. In the 1969 book, 1001 British Columbia Place Names, the authors express confusion about the name “Sister Ethelbert” itself, editorializing that Ethelbert was, “a surprising name for a nun–one wonders if Armstrong got it wrong.”28 In fact, there were a number of Sister Ethelberts at the time. The name “Ethelbert” is important in Christianity as King Ethelbert of England is revered as the first English King to convert to Christianity, which he did sometime at the end of the 6th century (c.597). In this context, and considering what little we know about her early life, it is possible that Mary Newlin chose the name “Ethelbert” as, like King Ethelbert, she was not raised Catholic but rather chose to convert to Christianity as an adult.
The first mention that I was able to find of Mount Ethelbert by name is in March 1904, a full decade after Sister Ethelbert is known to have passed away. The mountain is then described as, “soaring far above its companions, its turret-shaped head never yet scaled, and owing to its great altitude too frequently hid in mist.”29 This first account does not make any mention of the origins of the name, even as elsewhere in the piece the author describes the naming inspiration for other peaks such as Mount Gilbert (Mount Nelson) and Mount Farnham. The tragic story of Sister Ethelbert’s death does not appear until 1911.
Taking all of this information into account, the original and often repeated story about the naming of Mount Ethelbert can be revised somewhat. Sister Ethelbert, born Mary Newlin, worked for eight years for St Mary’s Hospital in New Westminster under the auspices of the Sisters of Charity of Providence of the Roman Catholic Church. During that time, Sister Ethelbert was regularly sent on trips throughout the province to raise funds for the hospital, including to Donald B.C. in 1887. On her last trip, somewhere in the Kootenays in 1894, Sister Ethelbert fell ill and had to return to New Westminster, where she passed away shortly after at the age of thirty-five. By 1904 Captain Francis Patrick Armstrong had named Mount Ethelbert after her.
It’s very likely that there are some hard copy sources out there that might shed some further light onto the unknown parts of this story. Hopefully one day they’ll be brought forward!