We are in new waters… professional sports league suspended, schools closed, large gatherings cancelled, quarantines taking place… We are in time of pandemic.
It is scary. It is a time of national anxiety. And we are just beginning this journey together…
But history of course tells us we have walked this way before and maybe it has some lessons for us to learn.
In the year 1873, Sister Constance as the Sister Superior, Sister Amelia, Sister Thecla, who had just made her profession, and Sister Hughetta, traveled from NY to Memphis, TN to begin the Community of St. Mary in that city. A Church Home for orphans was set up and a boarding and day school for girls. Scarcely had this work commenced when the yellow fever appeared in Memphis and was soon pronounced epidemic. Those who were able fled the city. The Sisters immediately wrote to New York, for permission to remain in the city and nurse the sick; the request had been anticipated, and consent was granted; and so they who had had no experience in epidemic disease, and whose special work was that of teaching, found themselves at once employed in novel duties in the face of a frightful visitation of illness.
Sister Constance took the lead. One of the Community, writing of those now distant days, says:
"Sister Constance went out first to the sick. Before she reached the house to which she was going, she was met by a young girl weeping and in great distress. She said her sister was just taken with the fever, that they could get no doctor, and did not know what they ought to do for her. My Sister went immediately to the sick child, did for her all that could be done, and ministered to her wants daily till her recovery. - My Sister always loved to speak of this little Louise as her first patient."
A soup kitchen was at once begun in the Sisters' House, and during the epidemic, soups, broths, gruels, and tea were made daily for the sick, and distributed by the Sisters on their round of visits. Sister Amelia was placed in charge of the Church Orphan Home, to which children left orphans by the fever were sent. The work of the Sisters consisted in visiting the sick, supplying nurses, medicines, and delicacies, speaking words of comfort and strength, offering prayers, and, in some cases, performing the last offices for the dead. They had under their charge some sixty cases, of which only eight terminated fatally… after a period of time the fever ceased at length, and the Sisters resumed their proper work of teaching. (from The Sisters of St. Mary at Memphis)
This first story amazes me because the nuns saw a need and stayed even as so many abled body citizens fled. They could have sought safe refuge elsewhere, they were teachers! but they didn’t. They changed up what needed to be done, not teaching but pastoral care, tending to the sick and dying, the orphans, and they continued in prayer and sacraments through the local church.
What might this say to us today as we anticipate a time of fever and cough, of neighbors who are in need? We are the ones called to help one another in this place, to continue our prayers, and to see what God might have us do now, even in these anxious moments.
But we should understand that there is a very real cost to such ministry.
In August 1878, Yellow Fever invaded the city of Memphis once again for the third time in ten years. By the month’s end the disease had become epidemic and a quarantine was ordered. While 30,000 citizens had fled in terror, 20,000 more remained to face the pestilence. As cases multiplied, death tolls averaged 200 daily. When the worst was over ninety percent of the population that had stayed had contracted the Fever; more than 5,000 people had died.
In that time of panic and flight, many brave men and women, both lay and cleric, remained at their posts of duty or came as volunteers to assist despite the terrible risk. Notable among these heroes were Sister Constance and her community who had lived through one epidemic to face another.
When the 1878 epidemic began, George C. Harris, the Cathedral Dean, and Sister Constance immediately organized relief work among the stricken. Helping were six of Constance’s fellow Sisters; several local priests, three physicians, the Sisters’ two matrons, and several volunteer nurses from New York. The Cathedral buildings were located in the most infected region of Memphis.
Here, amid sweltering heat and scenes of indescribable horror, these men and women of God gave relief to the sick, comfort to the dying, and homes to the many orphaned children. They continued in the prayers and sacraments as they could and they cared for one another.
There were in the city several communities of nuns, Anglican and Roman Catholic, who had the opportunity of leaving, but chose to stay and nurse the sick. Only two of the workers escaped the Fever, and Sister Constance and many others, thirty-eight in all, were themselves killed by the fever.
They have ever since been known as “The Martyrs of Memphis,” as have those of other Communions who ministered in Christ’s name during that time of desolation in that city. (from Lesser Feasts and Fasts)
I think Sister Constance and her community and all those who died serving others, knew what the Samaritan woman learned at the well. That indeed Jesus is that living water, he is the Savior of the World, and from that understanding they felt called to remain and help in Memphis.
Sister Constance and her companions gave the ultimate sacrifice. As one historical marker puts it, “becoming martyrs in their service to mankind.” In our day, we might not be called to make that ultimate sacrifice, but what sacrifices are we called to do? Social distancing and working from home are certainly part of it, but we should go deeper. Instead of buying a bunch of TP for ourselves, maybe we should be buying what we need and giving away to those in need around us (those sick at home, food pantry, etc.).
A PO officer noticed a woman wearing a t-shirt “Homeless. The fastest way of becoming a nobody” On his lunch break, he bought pizzas, and sat down with her to share a meal.
Are we checking in with our neighbors? Friends? This pandemic can lead us to live isolated from others but it need not be so. We must flatten the cure and stay apart, but we must remain engaged, for love is called to act, and our lives are called to be sacrificial.
May we be inspired in such love and commitment to those in need during COVID 19, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ who inspired Sister Constance & her companions, may we be saying our prayers and serving one another. Amen.