Project Canterbury

A Sermon
preached upon the Occasion of a Eucharistic Commemoration of the Clergy and Sisters Who Fell Victims to the Fever in the South.

by the Rev. J. Jay Joyce.
All Saints Day, 1878.
St. John’s Church, Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.: Beresford, Printer. 9 pp.

"Neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord, Jesus, to testify the Gospel of the grace of God." Acts xx, 24.

Dearly beloved, it falls now to my part to call your attention to the meaning and the uses of the Commemorative Service which we hold to-day; and as it is linked with the more general commemorations of All Saints' Day, so we shall find that the meaning and the uses which we are about to partially individualize, can be applied to the whole length and breadth of the Church's feast, so that it is eminently fit and proper that the day and the service should be thus conjoined.

We cannot do better than, first, to tell a short and simple story of contemporary fact. It has been but a few months since first the reports reached us that the fatal Southern fever had begun its deadly work, and as the days and weeks moved on, darker and darker became the accounts of suffering and of death. Hundreds were dead, thousands were fleeing, and other thousands, unable to escape from the cities of doom, were paralyzed and helpless in their fear; business and social life were completely disorganized, and a reign of terror had been established in the valley cities of the lower Mississippi. The cry for help went out from the helpless to all parts of the land, and ere its echoes died away, from all parts went back the shouts of succour.

Money, food, clothing, medicine, attendants, flowed thither in a constant stream, and humanity was crowned. Where-ever you open that book of suffering you find it interleaved with sacrifice; but we hurry on to concentrate our view upon one chapter. In those times that try men's souls, men's souls must be strengthened for the trial, and lanme hands of faith are then often, for the first time, stretched out, and voices, though feeble, begin to signal God. The faithful, also, need spiritual help as they gather up their mantles, ere they fall. And then, too, for all men, is there need to be pleaded before the eternal Father everything that may lead Him to reach out His hand and spare.

Who in those days of darkness shall keep the light burning before the altar? Who shall offer up and plead the merits of the One Great Sacrifice daily unto the Father? Who shall administer the viaticum to departing souls, and dismiss them shriven to their account? For the answer we must look to the Church, with Her Priests and Ministers; and the brief statement of fact, as it might have been read in the newspapers, shows us what we see.

Scarcely an account reached us that did not mention the conspicuous heroism with which the Priests there stationed did their work, carrying spiritual help in one hand, and material aid and comfort in the other. They remained at their posts, and performed the increased and dangerous duties which devolved upon them with a calmness and persistence that proved that they were actuated, not by the excitement of the warrior, nor the frenzy of the devotee, but by the sober, deeply rooted persuasion of their priestly duty, begotten of their Catholic faith, and which marks the ideal of the Christian martyr.

With unwearied attention toward all that came within their reach and knowledge went those servants of Christ and of His Church, soothing, consoling, blessing in His name; "counting not their lives dear unto themselves, so that they might finish their course with joy, and the ministry which they had received of the Lord Jesus to testify the Gospel of the grace of God."

And many of them did finish their earthly course, and others, stepping in to take their places, speedily fell victims likewise.

Time would not allow us to go into any details of the personal history of these devoted men, nor can we mention even their names, since, unintentionally, we might omit some, and we would make no distinctions in the martyrology which we exhibit, to you to-day; nor is there need of such particulars, they are all known to God; and for our admiration land example, what is the age, the place of birth, the name—compared with the one excelling fact, that they lived unto God, and for His Church while here, and dying now live to God for evermore. But we must not confine ourselves to these priestly servants. As we read the record of these days, we hear of woman's tenderness, of woman's devotion. In every age of the Church's history we find in time of trial woman standing by the side of man, and vying with him in his work for Christ. Though the Priesthood was, for reasons, to be filled exclusively by men, yet our Blessed Lord did not by this lower woman's privilege or woman's position, "for He was incarnate of the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary;" and ever since the days of that Virgin Mother woman has repeated her words, "behold the handmaid of the Lord." Early was her work organized, and made a powerful auxiliary for the propagation of the faith, by means of those quiet and gentle ministries, which are often the mightiest. And it is an indication, not a slight one, that we are getting back more and more toward primitive and Catholic methods; that we are seeking the old paths that we may stand in them; in that we are reviving the Order of Deaconesses, and instituting Sisterhoods to aid the Church's work of love and mercy. We have digressed thus slightly that we may understand the better the heroism which we desire next to present to you, and to honour. Moving softly among the ranks of sick and dying, performing those last offices for which man's hand is too rough, comforting the bereaved widow, and upon her death, caring for the homeless orphaned children, went those Sisters of Mercy, whose organization in our American Church had been so timely and providential. "The Sisters of St. Mary! God bless them," we doubt not is the thought of many a living one to-day, as it was the thought of many a dying one, over whose last hours they ceaselessly had watched. They brought the light of woman's loving care to many who else had been denied it; and in their vocation and ministry they counted not their lives dear unto themselves, for willingly and gladly they yielded themselves victims, and many left their healthful home on the Hudson to find death on the Mississippi.

It is these Priests and Sisters of the Church who gave their lives for the testimony of the Gospel of the grace of God, and whom God honored by taking. These are they whom we commemorate to-day.

And now what do we mean by this Commemoration? Is it a mere service held out of respect to their memory, and to keep it fresh? No; a commemoration is a stronger word. It denotes always a solemn celebration in reference to a person, or an event, and, in the Church's language, it is stronger still. It means there a solemn recognition of the person in the Eucharistic Office. It is linking the thought of the person with the most solemn and most sacred act of which the Church is capable, when, if ever. She wrestles with God and prevails. It denotes what is called in theological language, the intention with which She at such a time pleads the Great Sacrifice before the Father. And regularly does She commemorate in general terms all Estates of men in Christ's Holy Church, and in the early liturgies more definitely Her words were: "For thy Holy Catholic Church throughout the world; remember, also, O, Lord, our holy fathers and brothers in it, and the bishops, that in all the world rightly divide the word of truth; every city and region, and the orthodox that dwell in it; Christians that are voyaging, that are journeying, that are in foreign lands, in bonds and in prison, captives, exiles, those that are in sickness, every Christian soul in tribulation and distress." Thus did the Church gather in Her arms all Her children wherever scattered, and however conditioned, when She came before Her Lord, or did She stop with what we have quoted, but in recognition of the truth that these are not all the children, Her great Eucharistic Prayer went on: "Remember, Lord, the God of the spirits, and of all flesh, the orthodox whom we have commemorated, from righteous Abel unto this day. Give them rest there in the land of the living, in Thy kingdom, in the delight of Paradise, whence pain, sorrow and groaning are exiled, where the light of Thy countenance looks down and always shines."

And, besides these general commemorations, She read out from the diptychs, or tablets upon which they were inscribed, the names of those faithful departed whom for some reason She wished at any given time especially to bear in mind.

How was it that She thus extended the boundaries of Her household? It followed from that intense conviction of the truth of the Communion of Saints, which was one of the glories of the Primitive Church, as the loss of it is one of the sad shortcomings of Protestantism. The Catholic Church loses not her members who depart hence in the Lord. This truth we confess in the Creed, and All Saints' Day confirms and preserves it. And if this is so, then surely from the Altar, which is the centre of the Church's worship, and from the Offering, Thence proceeds the centripetal force that holds together the whole body of the faithful, we should not cut off those members that have been rendered the more comely by their devotion and present nearness to the Head. So thought and acted the Early Church, when in Her liturgy She always found room for the extended commemoration of which we spoke of the faithful departed. So think and act we to-day, as we commemorate these martyr Priests and Sisters, believing that our liturgy in its church militant prayer still retains a remnant of the same memorial. This, then, is the meaning of our service; as the high Priest of old entered into the holiest of holies, with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel engraven upon his breast, so to-day the celebrant Priest and we participants enter into a yet holier place, where, instead of a symbolical shekinah, there will rest the Real mysterious Presence of our Lord, and in our hearts we are to bear the thought of all the saints from righteous Abel unto this day, but especially, and in a more vivid manner, these latest additions to their number, who from their posts of duty in the plague stricken cities have gone to the rest of Paradise. Our service means, also, that we prepare upon this high day a Sacrifice and a feast, to which we invite these martyred saints; and we invite them, not in our individual capacity, but in the name of Christ's Church, in which they died, and in which they live forever. And we believe that in some way, though incomprehensible to us, yet in some way, they can and will accept, and will share it with us.

There is need to say but few words upon the use of our service as distinct from its meaning. Every Eucharistic Offering binds together the faithful, from the beginning to the end of time; it is retrospective and prospective; it proclaims the solidarity of the saints, and of the Household of God. And one of its uses is to show that in the Church of God one may find that immortality after which men have so vainly sought—"the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance." "Men may come, and men may go," but the Church with Her constant commemorations of all that are Hers passes not away with the generations, and will not be blotted out with the stars; and the persuasion of this helps men to suffer and be strong, "to count not their lives dear unto themselves, that they may finish their course with joy." And again, while the world is yet admiring the humanity and courage of these our brethren who have died for their fellow men, we have a special commemoration of them, so that, if possible, we may draw the attention of men from the world that so soon forgets to the Church that will keep Her own forever. And there may be a greater use than any other. Who can tell how far those "other benefits of His passion" may reach which we pray that we, and all His whole Church may obtain, or say that that Christ who went and preached to the spirits in prison, may not, by virtue of the pleading of His Great Sacrifice, affect His saints in Paradise to the increase of their bliss and glory?

We have done our part. In few words we have called your attention to these devoted men and women. In few words, also, we have sought to make your service to-day the more intelligent and useful. “They counted not their lives dear unto themselves," but they are dear to us; they are dear to those whose company they have gone to join; they are dear to Jesus, who hath given His beloved sleep.

Grant them eternal rest, O, Lord, and light perpetual shine upon them. Amen.

Project Canterbury