Project Canterbury

Ten Decades of Praise
The Story of the Community of Saint Mary during Its First Century
by Sister Mary Hilary, CSM

Racine, WI: The DeKoven Foundation for Church Work, 1965. 226 pp.


THE COMMUNITY HAD SENT a Sister south in 1871, when the Sisters could spare only one Novice to work there, so eager were they to help Bishop Quintard. Charles Todd Quintard and the Mother Superior were friends from Connecticut days, and had followed each other's vocations with keen interest. His medical career had taken him to Georgia and then to Memphis, where, influenced by Bishop James H. Otey, he had studied for the priesthood and been ordained in 1856. During the Civil War, he left the rectorship of the Church of the Advent, Nashville, to become Chaplain of the First Tennessee Regiment; his singular devotion earned him the honorific title "First Chaplain of the Confederacy." Like Mother Harriet, he was of Huguenot ancestry, black-eyed, magnetic, buoyant and direct. Several generals, including the fierce and formidable Braxton Bragg, were baptized by Chaplain Quintard and presented for confirmation. He was equally popular with the troops. A veteran foot-soldier commented, "Wall, when things was sort of quiet, he preached to the boys, when thar was sick and wounded, he doctored, and when the Yanks pushed us hard, he tuk a gun and fit."

Though some supposed he had "fit" himself out of all chance of being a bishop, the Church fortunately was bigger than sectional prejudice. His election was confirmed by the standing committees of the dioceses and he was consecrated Second Bishop of Tennessee in 1865. He set about energetically to rebuild his war-torn diocese. In 1867 he organized a home for war orphans; it was for help in this work that he turned to Mother Harriet.

Post-war poor as they were, the Churchmen of Tennessee within a few months raised $14,000 for the orphanage by contributions alone; Bishop Quintard forbade fairs or lotteries. By July, 1869, a building was ready on donated land in Buntyn, five miles east of Memphis. There still remained the problem of finding a suitable staff. When in 1870 a young woman from Nashville offered herself for the dedicated life in the Church, Bishop Quintard sent her to Mother Harriet in Peekskill to be trained, with the understanding that she would be returned to work in Tennessee. She had not long been clothed as Minor Sister Martha when the Bishop, pressed for help, begged for her return. The Mother yielded reluctantly, and Sister Martha took over the management of the Home from 1870 to August, 1871. Sister Martha's devotion so impressed a young society woman of Memphis that she became a Sister; she wrote of her impressions:

I had never before been in an orphanage or any institution of the kind, and I was impressed by the utter poverty of the place and also by its order and cleanliness. On arriving the Sister took me at once to her own little room. Through forty years of abiding in Religious Houses I have never seen a more perfect little cell. The whitewashed walls and the clean-scrubbed floor were spotless. Across the window was drawn a white cotton curtain. One common deal chair stood by the narrow cot with its snowy coverlid and small pillow. At the other end of the cell was a table on which was placed the Sister's Bible and Manuals of Devotion, her Crucifix and two candlesticks. Before the Crucifix was a small glass vase holding a few sweet roses. The Sister explained to me that this room was both her cell and oratory. "We have no real Chapel," she said. "The children's services are held in the schoolroom now, but when the Church is built I can say my offices before the Altar there."

Sister Martha, however, was destined to offer her worship in far more glorious surroundings. Upon her return to Peek-skill for further training and profession, she became seriously ill, worn out by the year in Buntyn. She died at the House of Mercy on August 29, 1871, and was buried in the Sisters' cemetery at Peekskill.

For a time the Church Home was without a Sister, but in the autumn of 1872 Mother Harriet wrote to Bishop Quintard that the Community had decided to make a foundation in Memphis. She posed three questions, probably in the order of their importance to her:

Shall we have the privilege of a Daily Celebration?

Can the Sisters look upon you as their Spiritual Guide?

As to temporal affairs, we have no money. Can the house be secured to us free of rent for one or more years? Will any gentleman or gentlemen hold themselves responsible to make up any deficiency in our current expenses for one or more years? The school should be a "Boarding and Day School." Will a strong effort be made to secure pupils from all parts of the Diocese?

The Bishop's reply was apparently satisfactory, for at the Chapter in May, 1873, the Mother announced the appointment of Sister Constance as Sister Superior of the new foundation in the South. Sister Constance, then twenty-eight, was what was termed "accomplished", meaning in her case that she was a talented artist, an able teacher and linguist, and possessed of charm which "might have adorned the most brilliant social circle," according to a eulogist. Reared a Unitarian in Boston, she had overcome family opposition to be baptized and, finally, professed in holy religion. Her natural gifts were enhanced by strength of character and gifts of grace.

With such a promising Superior the Mother sent three splendid helpers. Sister Amelia had gained valuable experience working among the poor in lower Manhattan and could take charge of the Church Home; Sister Thecla, a native of Georgia recently professed, would work in the proposed school; Sister Hughetta, twenty-five, still a Novice, was a member of the eminent Snowden family in Memphis, and could help in establishing the school.

The Sisters felt the impending separation keenly, for it was to be the first time that more than forty miles had separated them. The entire Community gathered at St. Mary's Hospital to wish the four Sisters Godspeed. At Cincinnati they parted temporarily, Sister Amelia going to Nashville to visit relatives, Sister Thecla to Georgia, and Sisters Constance and Hughetta hurrying directly to Memphis.

Bishop Quintard had given over the Bishop's residence west of St. Mary's Cathedral for the new school; he and his family planned to remain year-around at their mountain home in Sewanee, where he was Vice-Chancellor of the recently re-organized University of the South. While the Sisters prepared the school and living quarters for themselves, they were guests of Sister Hughetta's brother, Colonel Robert Bogardus Snowden. The work of cleaning and renovating fell to the Sisters themselves, for their assets totalled $235, obtained by selling a watch and some jewelry. With $125 of this sum they bought a silver Communion set, leaving them $110 to open the school.

All was in readiness for classes to begin when, early in the morning of October 1, a message arrived from a Roman Catholic priest begging the Sisters to help nurse victims of yellow fever, which had broken out in his parish. Five of the Franciscan Sisters were desperately ill, Father Walsh reported, two had died, and the epidemic was spreading fast. The Sisters packed up improvised medical kits and then telegraphed Peekskill for permission to take on the nursing assignment. The Dean of St. Mary's Cathedral, their friend the Very Rev. George C. Harris, sensibly advised them to find a physician to teach them a little nursing; meanwhile, he proposed to investigate the epidemic. When Father Walsh learned from Dean Harris that the Sisters were not nurses but teachers, the Roman priest thanked them warmly but refused to let them expose themselves.

The Sisters were exposed soon after, however. As the daily deaths mounted to seventy and more, the Howard Association, a relief society of young business men, mapped the city into nursing districts, and the Sisters agreed to be responsible for the Cathedral district, adjacent to the stricken area. In all, the Sisters cared for sixty patients, of whom only eight died. Sister Amelia hurried from Nashville to take over the Church Home, where the healthy children were being moved to another orphanage. Sister Thecla joined Sisters Constance and Hughetta in setting up a relief agency in their own quarters to dispense meals to the ministering priests, as well as medicine and food to the sick. The moment a Sister appeared in the street she was besieged with pleas for help, often for shrouds.

With proper nursing, the yellow fever victim had a good chance to recover. The disease ran its course in one to five days, with headache, backache, high fever and congested face. A day or two after the onset of the fever, internal hemorrhaging began, accompanied by jaundice. At this point the victim either died or recovered, and with recovery enjoyed lifelong immunity. Not until 1881 would Carlos J. Finlay find that mosquitoes transmitted the disease. In the seventies it was believed to be spread by night air; lime and carbolic acid were spread in the streets and homes to purify the air.

Sailors infected with the virus would arrive in port, where they would be bitten by carrier mosquitoes. The 1873 epidemic began precisely in this way. Early in August a steam packet from New Orleans docked in Memphis for supplies and left behind two feverish crew members. The disease was soon spreading, slowly at first, through the Irish settlements of Pinch and Happy Hollow. By the first of September half the city's forty thousand residents had fled. Of those remaining, five thousand had yellow fever and two thousand died. The city lay paralyzed in a deadly silence, broken by an occasional mule cart loaded with coffins, rumbling down a deserted street white with lime.

The Sisters were on duty from six to six and still could not minister to all who asked their help. They omitted the recitation of Matins to perform their own housework and prepare sick rations. At seven o'clock was the Celebration of the Holy Communion. After breakfast they met with Dean Harris in the little dining room provided for his temporary use. After receiving directions for the day's work, they disinfected the house and placed squares of disinfectant-soaked linen under their clothing. Two Sisters then went on house calls, one stayed to finish housework and the other answered the bell and dispensed wine and whiskey to applicants at the door. At noon all went to the Cathedral for the Litany and noon prayers, and after dinner three went out with soup and medicine on house calls. After Vespers and tea, they relaxed, complying with Dean Harris's request that there be "no fever talk at night." They then arranged for night nurses for desperate cases, made up their accounts of expenses and donations to show Dean Harris the next day, and finally fell exhausted into bed.

Contributions poured in from many quarters, with Dr. Dix alone collecting as much as $1,400 a week, but prices had sky-rocketed and Dean Harris warned that some of the money must be saved to relieve the distress that would follow the epidemic. At times no amount of money would hire a nurse. Once the only nurse they could find was a dull girl unable to read, write or remember the doctor's orders. As the contagion mounted, the Sisters reported that their baker had died, their butcher had closed his store and begged them to come nurse his son, and their apothecary was dying. Bishop Quintard wrote encouragingly from Sewanee, Bishop Potter sent fatherly encouragement, and Dr. Dix toiled untiringly on their behalf. But when the middle of October came without the arrival of help, and when Sister Thecla appeared to be weakening under the strain, the Sisters were discouraged. That evening Sister Constance wrote to Mother Harriet:

A pouring rain—another bad thing—it just stirs up the horrible filth of this wretched city, and leaves muddy pools to stagnate in the sun. There is no drainage—no system of cleaning the city—everyone carries the kitchen refuse into the back alley, and the pigs, which run about the streets, eat it up. I have disinfected this house thoroughly, from garret to cellar, with lime, carbolic acid, and copperas—and today the health officer came and threw tar-water all about the place—spoiling our nice clean galleries and spotting our hall carpeting in the most unnecessary manner.

If spotted carpeting offended Sister Constance's Boston sensibilities, she was comforted by one consolation:

One comfort we have that we never had before, and perhaps could never have under any other circumstances—the Reservation—always in the Church. It is not often possible to go in, but we have the key, and it does not take long to run through the little gallery leading from the Community Room. That, and the daily Celebration, do make such a difference in our life here!

Sister Sarah, who had trained three of them in the Novitiate, wrote expressing the satisfaction of the New York Sisters to hear of the daily Celebration in Memphis,

for in the Blessed Sacrament is our Strength—and in your needs, this Daily Bread from heaven will renew your powers to do and suffer, so that you will not fail, nor faint.

Other words of encouragement poured in, none so welcome as the notes from Dr. Dix, "our Reverend Father", as they invariably called him. He expressed his concern and spoke of waiting anxiously for the daily "all are well" telegraph dispatches. In the last week in October he reported that upon his visit to Boston the previous Sunday an offering had been taken at the Church of the Messiah for the Sisters' sick-relief fund.

By October 27, nursing demands slackened and food preparation increased, as recuperating patients regained their appetites. Sister Constance described Sister Hughetta

getting the list of invalids' orders into portable shape—the birds into their little baskets, the soup into numerous little pails, the jelly into anything that will hold it—and we shall be busy all day in carrying things to those of the sick who cannot send for them—for you could hardly hire anyone to go into the fever-rooms, even to set down a basket. Besides, we usually have to warm the soup, & feed the patients ourselves; having by great good fortune, secured a number of the little cans of extract of beef, we usually carry some with us, and make beef-tea on the spot. Mr. Harris has grown quite used to carrying soup without spilling it, and even good old Dr. Samson has just walked off with a little bird in one hand, and a bottle of brandy in the other. I rather doubt if his patient ever sees that bird, for he is not very skillful in carrying things.

By November 1 the worst was over. Dean Harris wrote the Mother praising the Sisters' utter forgetfulness of self, their brave hearts shown by the steady step, unfailing readiness & cheerful faces in the worst of the dangerous work.

Bishop Quintard sent the Memphis Sisters his benediction "out of a heart penetrated with gratitude to God for giving you to me as my 'fellow-helpers' in Xt Jesus."

In her own appraisal of their experience, Sister Constance measured her phrases with Yankee economy. If the terrible year should ever be repeated, she assured the Mother, the Sisters would be equipped to be "really good fever nurses."

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