As we struggle on in the midst of a global pandemic that continues to take the lives of upwards of 1,000 people a day in this country, the Church gives us a reminder today that we are not the first to live through treacherous times.
Today on the Church calendar we remember the Martyrs of Memphis. That’s Memphis, Tennessee, and the martyrs are Episcopal nuns and priests, known as “Constance and her Companions,” who gave their lives caring for people in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in August 1878.
The nuns had first come to Memphis five years earlier to start a girls’ school adjacent to St. Mary’s Cathedral. The summer of 1878, Sisters Constance and Thecla had returned to the Mother House in Peekskill, NY on the Hudson River to escape Memphis’ summer heat. But after receiving a telegram informing them of the yellow fever outbreak they immediately packed their bags and headed back to Memphis.
They were among a very few people headed into Memphis. Almost 30,000 of the city’s population of 50,000 fled to other areas. Among those who stayed were the poorest of the city’s population. Then, as now, the poor bear the brunt of almost every tragedy.
The nuns and priests who cared for the city’s sick saw scenes of pure horror. They went door to door checking on families, often finding children closed up in a hot house with the bodies of their parents. It was thought that “bad air” was the source of the disease (which we now know is borne by mosquitos). So every house was shut up tightly in the August heat in a vain effort to keep the bad air out. Bodies were often stacked on the street, waiting for the horse-drawn hearses to come and pick them up.
The nuns found so many orphaned children that in the midst of caring for the sick they also opened an orphanage.
When the worst was over, more than 5,000 people had died, and 90 percent of the population had contracted the Fever.
Among the dead were the nuns Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Frances; and priests Charles Parsons and Louis Schuyler. The last words of Sister Constance, “Alleluia. Hosanna, Praise be to God.” are carved into the altar at St. Mary’s, along with the names of the six martyrs.
It is impossible to read of the Martyrs of Memphis without thinking about the martyrs of our own day, who have given their lives caring for those with Covid-19. The most recent numbers I could find are a month old. They show that 922 U.S. health care workers — nurses, doctors, paramedics, nursing home attendants, and custodians — have died from the disease. That number is conservative.
When I read this prayer for Constance and her Companions, I include those who are following in their footsteps today.
We give you thanks and praise, O God of compassion, for the heroic witnesses of Constance and her companions, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death: Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
If you are interested in learning more about Constance and the yellow fever epidemic, I have pasted below something I wrote about them for a retreat I led some years ago. It includes entries from Sister Constance’s diary.
See you tonight at 8 for Compline.
The Martyrs of Memphis
Sister Constance and her Companions
It is August 1878 and Sister Constance and Sister Thecla, nuns in the Episcopal order of St. Mary’s are at the Mother House in Peekskill, NY on the Hudson River. They have just arrived from Memphis, Tennessee, where they teach and run St. Mary’s School for girls.
Being on the river in New York in the summer is a blessed relief from the oppressive summer heat of Memphis. Being with the larger community of sisters is also a joy. This is a time of much needed rest and relaxation.
But on August 5, a telegram arrives that drives all thought of rest and relaxation from their minds. Yellow fever is rampant in Memphis. It is the third epidemic of the mosquito-borne viral disease in 10 years. The disease causes high fever, chills, internal bleeding, and jaundice, and can lead to delerium, coma, and death.
Within an hour of receiving the telegram, Sisters Constance and Thecla are packing for a return to Memphis. They go first to New York City to arrange for money and supplies to be sent south.
The rector of the Church of the Transfiguration blesses them as they leave the city. “I commended to the protection of Almighty God two of the Sisters of St. Mary, just as they were setting out on their return to Mempis, from whence so many that could were fleeing,” he writes later. “Without delay or hesitation they went back to the post of duty and of danger, and, it may be, of death.
“I have had a varied experience, and have witnessed much, but I have seen no braver sight than those sisters sitting alone in the carriage which was to take them to the train for the journey to Memphis.”
The sisters are among the very few taking a train into Memphis. Almost 27,000 of the city’s 47,000 residents have fled.
“Panic convulsed the whole city,” one observer wrote. “Thousands left on the trains, whilst thousands of others escaped in carriages, wagons, carts, and even on foot. The scene I witnessed at the depot could not be imagined. We were nearly crushed in obtaining our places.
“At last the overcrowded train moved off amid the loud and heart-rending cries of those left behind. A child and an old person were trampled to death on the platform.”
A report in the New York Tribune notes that all of the city’s affluent residents had evacuated, “leaving the poor to shift as they may for themselves. To the horrors of the plague are added those of a condition fast approaching famine,” the reporter says.
“The provision stores are all closed, and the only way to obtain supplies is to break them open, which is sometimes done. All the drug stores are closed, and it is difficult to get medicine, even when medical attendance has been had and prescriptions written.”
When the sisters get off the train in the deserted city, Sister Constance says to the person who meets them, “How could I ever have left you! I have been so unhappy, but I am happy now.”
Arrangements have been made for the nuns to work in the city during the day, but to spend the night in the country, where the air is thought to be better and there is less danger of disease.
Sister Constance immediately rejects the idea. “We cannot listen to such a plan,” she says emphatically. “It would never do. We are going to nurse day and night; we must be at our post.”
The nuns immediately head to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, where they join with what one described as “a little band of devoted souls,” including three Episcopal priests, several other nuns, and a few devoted laypeople.
None of them are nurses or doctors, but all feel compelled to “show the love of Jesus,” and bring hope and comfort to the sick and dying.
The city is still and deathlike. The streets are deserted, the stores closed, the only traffic the passing of hearses and wagons carrying the dead. Sister Constance begins going from house to house to care for the sick. People believe the disease is spread by “bad air,” so even in the 100 degree temperatures windows are boarded up and fires are burning to ward off the outside air.
Sister Constance keeps a diary of hurried writings describing what was happening.
August 20: “Arrived. Streets white with lime; wagon loads of coffins. A sad coming home.
August 23: “I found two young girls, who had spent two days in a two-room cottage with the unburied bodies of their parents, their uncle in the utmost suffering and delirium, and no one to help. It was 24 hours before I could get those two fearful corpses buried, and then I had to send for a police officer before any undertaker would enter that room.
“One grows hardened to these things – carts with eight or nine corpses in rough boxes are ordinary sights. I saw a nurse stop one today and ask for a certain man’s residence – the Negro driver just pointed over his shoulder with his whip at the heap of coffins behind him and answered, ‘I’ve got him here in his coffin.’”
August 27: “I met a man on the street with a telegram, who stopped us and said, ‘Read that.’ I read, ‘Father and mother are lying dead in the house, brother is dying, send me some help, no money,’ signed Sallie. The man said, ‘Will you go to that poor girl?’ We went at once.
‘Found small, neat house, pretty young girl in mourning, one corpse on sofa, one on bed, tall young man in bed, delirious, rocking himself back and forth, scarcely clothed at all. I did what I could.”
So many children are being orphaned that the sisters, in addition to their nursing, set up a house near the church to use as an orphanage, which they called an asylum.
August 28. “The opening of the Asylum was attended by unpleasant circumstances. On our way we were met by a mob of men, who stopped our carriage and protested against the children being brought from the infected districts to their neighborhood.
“One man said, ‘I have brought my wife and children here from the lower parts of the city to save them from the fever and I won’t have these orphans brought out here.’ The he proceeded to use violent language.
“Sister Constance listened to each man’s complaint, and then said with great calmness and gentleness, ‘Sirs, is it possible that you would have us refuse to these children the very protection you have obtained for your own? We do not propose to make a hospital out of the Asylum.’
“Her words, and still more, I think, her gentle, sweet tones produced a marked effect on the men. The next day we opened the house and in 24 hours received 26 orphans, in four days there were 50 children.”
August 29: 119 new cases. Four Romish priests dead. Seven sisters ill. Busy all day. Received telegram that two or three more sisters are on the way. The risk is almost as terrible as the need. May God have mercy on them and on us!
Later that day, Sister Constance writes a letter to her Mother Superior in New York. “My dearest Mother, your telegram brought me a kind of brightness, but I cannot help a great deal of anxiety for Sister Helen and Ruth. My sense of duty in the matter is so divided between the feeling that I ought to secure all the help that I can for these poor suffering people, and the fear for those who come. I will guard them to the utmost, but they know and you know that they are offering their lives.
“The panic is fearful today. Eighty deaths reported.”
August 30: “Worse and worse reports. Friend after friend dead or dying.”
In the first days of September, two of the Episcopal priests who have worked tirelessly die.
September 5. Both Sister Constance and Sister Thecla are striken. Another sister reports, “I knew at once that Sister Constance was very ill. She insisted it was only a slight headache, and would not listen to my entreaties to go to bed. Her face was flushed with the fever; she allowed me to get a pillow and make her somewhat more comfortable; but she talked of resuming her work among the sick as soon as possible.
“Within the same hour in which we put her to bed, Sister Thecla came in from the death-bed of a poor woman. She said at once, calmly and quietly, ‘I am so sorry, Sister, but I have the fever. Give me a cup of tea, and then I shall go to bed.
“I was obliged to tell each Sister that the other was ill, as each wanted the other to come to her.”
September 7: Sister Ruth writes to her sisters in New York. “Dr. Armstrong told us this morning he has no hope for either one: they are very ill…We are helpless and do not know what to do nor how help can come. There are 50 children here; we have no clean clothes. There is no one to send for supplies and no stores are open. Money is quite useless; there is plenty of money here, but it buys no head to plan, no hands to wash, nor the common necessities of life.
“We know how eager you all are to help us, and we prize the thoughfulness and love, but it is almost as if we were utterly isolated. Those outside can do so little. I do not fear the fever, but I know we shall all have it. The only ray of sunshine is, that it was right to come; and we are here; so we go on with tired but thankful hearts. I am writing by the bedside of a sick child, and in great haste.”
September 8: Again from Sister Ruth. “This Sunday was the most melancholy that can be imagined. Some 200 new cases reported, and as many deaths. All the world seems passing away; the earth sinking from under our feet..
September 9: Sister Constance dies. “Few know what a wonderful life it was that ended, for this world, when Sister Constance died. It was one long and entire consecration to Christ and the Church; and the strength with which she met the fearful trials of those last days, directing, sustaining, and cheering her devoted companions, and working day and night to spare others, was a supernatural strength. She was but 33 years old when called away; a woman of exquisite grace, tenderness, and loveliness of character, very highly educated, and one who might have adorned the most brilliant social circle. All that she had she gave without reserve to her Lord.”
September 12: Sister Thecla dies.
September 14: Dr. Armstrong dies.
September 16: Mrs. Bullock dies.
September 17: The Rev. Mr. Schuyler and Sister Ruth die.
Before the cool weather of autumn breaks the disease more than 5,000 residents of Memphis die.
Today the last words of Sister Constance, “Alleluia. Hosanna. Praise be to God,” are carved into the altar at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis, along with the names of the nuns and priests who died caring for the sick.
Elizabeth Wirls, who now manages the bookstore at the Cathedral says, “You really do feel their presence. It’s like they’re calling to you, “You can do more.” It’s about being called to do for others, not picking and choosing who you do it for.”