The Sisters of St. Mary at Memphis:
with the Acts and Sufferings of the Priests and Others Who Were There with Them during the Yellow Fever Season of 1878.
New York: Printed, but not Published, 1879; 62pp.
transcribed by Elizabeth Boggs
IT is with deep emotion, and inexpressible reverence and tenderness, that I undertake the task of compiling, from letters, notes, and memoranda which have been placed in my hands, a brief narrative of the acts and sufferings of our beloved in Christ who died of the pestilence at Memphis last year. The motive which leads many to wish for some permanent record of these things cannot, it is thought, be misunderstood by any ingenuous mind. No one could for an instant suppose that it was intended to honor, hereby, the holy departed. Their souls are in the hands of God, and their reward is with the Most High; no one of us could add to the radiance of their crown, nor are we worthy to pronounce the eulogy on such sublime devotion. But the glory of their sorrows and their victory is the common property of the Church; and if it be true, that when one member suffers all the members suffer, and that, when some of us are enabled by God's grace to do noble deeds, the honor may be shared by even the humblest brother of those heroic souls, then may we all claim it as of right that we should know what has been accomplished. And again, we need the help that comes from reflection on the power of religion and the mysteries of Divine Providence. Scenes such as those which this brief memorial discloses are mirrors of eternal things. The story of Memphis is like a reflection of the story of Calvary. The love of Jesus Christ, in the fullness of its constraining power, is exhibited in those, who, having forsaken all to follow and possess Him, shrank not from the supreme test of their sincerity, but laid down their lives at His bidding. That love should speak to our hearts ; as we read of these fruits of divine faith, our own love should kindle, and our faith should be strengthened; the supernatural world is brought very near to us; it seems more real, for a season, than this.
There is another reason why some account of these things should be given. It is said by the skeptical theorists of our day, the philosophers of naturalism and materialism, that self-devotion in a religious life is a past idea; that it pertains to an overstrained and false enthusiasm; that women have no mission now to lift them above the average level around them; that there is no place among us for those who seek a perfect and entire consecration to our Blessed Lord after the type of the noble spirits of other days. In answer to such sayings, we deem it sufficient to lift, for a few moments, the veil which hides the very things which the rationalist, and the worldly thought it impossible to find at the present day, and to show them, by visible instances, that we have among us a heroism and a devotion worthy of the grandest ages of the Church, known to God, and ready to shine forth as the sun when occasion should be given. "By their fruits ye shall know them," said our Lord; and by this we are assured, that the faith of these our beloved in Christ was the true faith, and that the power which sustained them was indeed supernatural and divine.
So then I proceed to the task of drawing this simple outline of a marvelous history; yet with the design of letting the actors in it tell their own story in their own words. The hands which have arranged these materials before me, have done their work with trembling; and the eyes that traced the autograph records of those fearful hours, the touching correspondence, the hastily penned memoranda of days of sorrow, have been dimmed, from time to time, with tears.
By way of introduction to the more immediate subject, reference must be made to the beginning of the work of the Sisters of St. Mary, in the city of Memphis. It commenced in the year 1873. The Right Reverend Charles T. Quintard, Bishop of Tennessee, sought and obtained the permission and consent of the Bishop of New York that the Community of St. Mary should send some of their members to Memphis, to found a school in that place, and to take charge of an institution known as the Church Home. In August of that year, a little band arrived, consisting of Sister Constance as the Sister Superior, Sister Amelia, Sister Thecla, who had just made her profession, and Sister Hughetta, then a novice. Sister Amelia was placed in charge of the Church Home; and preparations were made to open, in the ensuing month of September, a boarding and day school for girls, the bishop having given up his own residence, next to the cathedral, for that purpose. Scarcely had this work been commenced when the yellow fever appeared in Memphis, and was soon pronounced epidemic. 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.
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. During that time, the Rev. George C. Harris, Dean of St., Mary's Cathedral, celebrated the Holy Communion daily, and the Blessed Sacrament was also reserved for the sick and dying. Other clergy of the Church assisted Dr. Harris in his work, aiding and strengthening all by their zealous labors.
The fever ceased at length, and the Sisters resumed their proper work of teaching. The school was opened late in the autumn, and has been maintained to this day, with the desired measure of success.
But, writes one of the Community, "that epidemic of 1873 seems now like a faint foreshadowing of the one through which we have just passed. The distressing scenes witnessed in the first were replaced by overwhelming sorrows in the second, while the pain and sadness of the one were intensified into most bitter suffering and anguish in the other."
We come to the fatal year, 1878, When it became known that the yellow fever was in New Orleans, the Memphis Board of Health desired the establishment and enforcement of a rigid quarantine; before this could be effected it was too late, and in the month of August the fever was again pronounced epidemic in Memphis.
I quote again from the writer from whose letter I have already given extracts:
"For several days previous to this a panic convulsed the whole city. Thousands left on the trains, whilst thousands of others escaped in carriages, wagons, carts, and even on foot. On Wednesday and the three following days, on any road leading out from Memphis, could be seen a procession of wagons, piled high with beds, trunks, and small furniture, carrying, also, the women and children. Beside these walked groups. of men, some riotous with the wild excitement, others moody and silent from anxiety and dread. The scenes at the depots were wild and exciting to the highest degree. A friend wrote back to us from Louisville: ' We were unable to get standing room on the trains on Wednesday and Thursday, but we left on Friday, at midnight. The scene I witnessed at the depot could not be pictured. We were nearly crushed in obtaining our places. At last the over-crowded train moved off amid the loud and heart-rending cries of those left behind. I was told that a child and an old person were trampled to death near us on the platform.' By the middle of the following week all who desired to escape and had the means of doing so were gone, and the city was still and death-like. There was something wonderfully moving to the soul in this contrast -- this change from wild and terrible confusion to the calm stillness of the deserted streets, the closed stores and houses, the rapid passing of hearses and wagons with the dead. As we went to and from St. Mary's in visiting the sick and dying, we met very few persons excepting the physicians and officers of the Howard and Relief Associations on their round of duty."
When the fearful disease thus broke out again in Memphis, Sister Constance, Superior of the Work, and Sister Thecla, were absent. They had gone for a vacation after the close of the school, and for a brief rest, to the Mother House, St. Gabriel's, at Peekskill, on the Hudson. It was there, on the 5th of August, that the news reached them that the fever was epidemic in Memphis, just two weeks after their arrival in the North. Without an hour's delay they made their preparations, bade their dear companions farewell, no more again to see their faces in this world, and took their way back to the scene of desolation and death. They stopped for a little while at Trinity Infirmary, 50 Varick Street, New York, to make arrangements with Sister Eleanor, the Superintendent, for the forwarding of money and supplies, and thence, on the evening of the 17th, they departed. The Rev. George H. Houghton, D.D., Rector of the.Church of the Transfiguration, in New York, and Pastor of the Community, went to the Infirmary, and there, in the chapel, commended them to the merciful God. Alluding to this, in a brief address to his congregation on Sunday, August 25th, he said:
"A week ago yesterday 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 Memphis, from whence so many that could were fleeing. Two weeks before they had come on to New York for needed rest and refreshment. News came of the breaking out of the yellow fever. 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 that which I saw in Varick Street, in front of the Trinity Infirmary, when, just at evening, I blessed those Sisters sitting alone in the carriage which was to take them to the train for the journey to Memphis. Is it much for us who are to come, please God, into. no such peril of death, to fill their hands with such things as they need for the sick and the dying and the destitute? If it be more convenient, send to me whatever you will, good friends, and there shall be no delay in its reaching the Sisters."
They arrived in Memphis on Tuesday, the 20th August. "My Sister's first words to me were," writes one of those who met them on their arrival, " 'How could I ever have left you! I have been so unhappy, but I am so happy now.'" When they were told of a plan proposed for the .Sisters to sleep in the country, out of the infected atmosphere, and to work in the town only during the day, they rejected it with much feeling, saying, " We cannot listen to such a plan; it would never do; we are going to nurse day and night; we must be at our post."
The little band of devoted souls whose history during those dreadful days and nights we are about to read, consisted of the following persons:
The Rev. George C. Harris, D.D., Dean of St. Mary's Cathedral
The Rev. Charles C. Parsons, Rector of Grace Church;
Sister Constance, Superior of the work at Memphis
Sister Thecla, teacher in St. Mary's School ;
Sister Hughetta, teacher in St. Mary's School;
Sister Frances, in charge of the.Church Orphan Home; Mrs. C. Bullock, residing at the Sisters' House;
Miss Margaret Murdock, residing at the Sisters' House.