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.


EVEN AFTER THE EPIDEMIC and exodus of 1873, St. Mary's School in Memphis registered forty students for the year and managed to pay all expenses. With this encouragement, the Sisters enlarged the school by buying a lot on the east side of the Cathedral for $7,000, borrowed from Mr. Robert Brinkley, Colonel Snowden's father-in-law. The two houses on this property contained between them seventeen rooms, which the Sisters remodelled and refurnished during the summer of 1874. In September St. Mary's opened with eighty pupils; in addition, a nearby house became a free school for poor children, taught by an Associate, Mrs. Emma Clarke.

For the next four years, the three Sisters worked staggering schedules. Sister Constance as Superior kept the accounts, supervised the Associates, managed the academic department and taught Latin, French and history. Sister Thecla was sacristan of both the Cathedral and the school chapel, had charge of the music department, taught piano to the younger girls, managed the primary school, and taught English and Latin grammar. On Friday and Saturday afternoon she also visited the poor and sick with a companion, Mrs. Harris, the Dean's wife and an Associate. Sister Hughetta was in charge of the house, taught art, mathematics and English composition, and supervised the Guild of the Holy Child, a branch of a devotional society for school girls originated by Mother Harriet at St. Mary's, New York.

Recalling the poverty and hard work, years later, Sister Hughetta added that they lived "in a flow of charity and prayers that made life very sweet and all burdens light." The water was frozen in their pitchers on winter mornings and in summer the city lay in a steaming stench; but hardships were mitigated by the conviction that St. Mary's "was probably the best Church school in the southern states at that time." The Sisters took pride in each Commencement and recalled it as a glittering social event. Each graduate received a diploma hand-illuminated by the Sister Superior. After the Bishop's blessing there was a social hour with

scores of white-gowned girls with huge bouquets of flowers and scores of little girls running about with the flower baskets of the seniors; of dignified fathers and happy mothers smiling upon their children, while in and out of the crowded rooms moved the stately darkey waiters carrying ice cream and cake on large silver trays—the fine trays being the property of rich and kindly neighbors.

The valedictory address of 1876, delivered by one Miss Lizzie Montgomery, was too long for publication in the local papers, but its conclusion appeared, "too beautiful to be omitted" and stands as a perfect period piece of commencement oratory:

Schoolmates—Farewell! I fain would not have it so. What words can express my feeling for you! If the poet can say so much of the frail, soulless flowers of our parterres and fields, what does he leave me to say to you, my beautiful flowers, with germs of eternity in each heart? There is nothing more to say. To you whom in this 'rose-bud garden of girls' I have likened unto flowers, rich, rare, sweet flowers—one so pure and fair I have named a lily, another the Goddess of Flowers herself, and one in all her youthful beauty a rose, another a modest daisy, others violets and heliotropes, pinks and pansies, all buds and blossoms—may your lives be as gentle and lovely as these flowers; may no dark shadows, no heavy storms impend your pathway, so that when Death comes to call from each circle its fondly cherished one, angels may bear that soul to its God.

The Church Home, too, flourished in these five years, in part through needs arising from the yellow fever epidemic. After the first year, Sister Amelia had been obliged by frail health to surrender the direction of the Home. The Board of Trustees paid her high tribute in a resolution forwarded to the Mother Superior on October 7, 1874. By her patient labor, they said, Sister Amelia had made the Church Home "what it never was before, a clean, sweet, cheerful and homelike place." Not until 1877 was Mother Harriet able to replace Sister Amelia with another sister, the recently professed Sister Frances.

Thus the summer of 1878 saw the work in Memphis well enough established that Sisters Constance and Thecla felt able to return to Peekskill for rest and retreat at St. Mary's Convent, a three-story frame building completed in December, 1876. They had been there for two weeks when, on the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, August 15, news arrived that Memphis was once again in the throes of a yellow fever epidemic. The two Sisters left at once, stopping in New York long enough to arrange for the forwarding of money and medicine. When they departed on August 17, Dr. George Houghton, Rector of the Church of the Transfiguration, stood on the steps of their carriage in front of Trinity Infirmary to give them his blessing.

Upon arriving in Memphis, they at once set about turning their residence at 352 Poplar into a dispensary. Though records show that at this point deaths averaged only ten a day, memories of 1873 had already thrown the city into a panic. By mid-August twenty thousand residents had fled. A rigid quarantine had been imposed, gangs of men had been set to cleaning the streets, and freight by rail or river from Vicksburg or New Orleans was forbidden entry. Boats from the north with such necessities as coal or coffins (ordered from Cincinnati by the thousand) were permitted to anchor in the river and unload their freight onto barges. Still the death rate mounted. The Board of Health debated the advisability of detonating fifteen kegs of powder to cleanse the air, but finally settled instead on burning one hundred kegs of pine tar. Desperate and baffled, they voted on August 29 to prohibit the importation of watermelons and ordered that fever victims be coffined and buried within six hours of death. One reads these minutes with mingled sorrow and despair. The Board members were certain that the disease had nothing to do with the open bayou which traversed the city, becoming in some places an open sewer. The suggestion that somehow the fever stemmed from "animalculae" following the course of the bayous was hooted down in derision. No, the Board decided, yellow fever was transmitted in the atmosphere, polluted by the privy vaults which honey-combed the city.

Less concerned with the cause of the disease than with its effects, the Sisters noted at once that the 1878 version was more swiftly virulent than that of 1873. The earlier fever had run its course in sixty hours; this frequently ended in horrible convulsions in twenty-eight hours. The death rate doubled by August 27 and reached seventy in one day by August 30. In house after house the Sisters found victims alone and unconscious, without medical or nursing attendance. Scraps of notes found among Sister Constance's papers after her death trace the mounting horror. By Sunday, August 25, Sister Frances was reported down with the fever at the Church Home and the other Sisters shared the night nursing with their devoted Associate, Mrs. Nannie Bullock. Sister Hughetta became ill on Monday night, August 26. It was nearly impossible to find nurses. Sister Constance wrote, "Met five or six negroes, tried to secure nurse, they said they 'were mighty jubious about this here fever', would not go."

As she answered one call, Sister Constance was met by a man who thrust a telegram into her hands and demanded that she read it. It read, "Father and mother are lying dead in the house, brother is dying, send me some help, no money." It was signed "Sallie U." Sister Constance went at once and found a pretty young girl in mourning, one corpse on the sofa, another on the bed, and a delirious, nearly naked young man rocking himself back and forth in his great agony, in an atmosphere so horrible that the Sister was sickened.

This type of scene was repeated again and again in the day's work. Five doctors had fled the city, and at times an undertaker's services could be procured only by the vexatious process of obtaining a police order. The workers were hampered in small ways, too: the horse lost all his shoes and there was no blacksmith to shoe him. Dr. Houghton sent $889, but money was fast losing its value as goods became increasingly scarce.

The Relief Association prevailed upon the Sisters to take over an orphanage for Negro children, the Canfield Asylum, and make it a reception center for all fever orphans without distinction of race or religion. Since the Asylum was in a part of the city not heavily infected, the Sisters felt justified in telegraphing Peekskill for help; in the meantime, Sister Hughetta, who had recovered from her bout of what was probably dysentery, was placed in charge. On the way to the Asylum, in a part of the city not heavily infected, she and Sister Constance were accosted by an angry mob demanding to know by what right they were bringing in children from infected areas. Sister Constance listened to their complaints and reassured them gently, finally quelling their anger with the question, "Are you not willing to trust the Sisters?" A few men mumbled, "Yes, we are," and the mob made way for the driver to proceed. The Asylum was opened next day. Within four days fifty fever orphans were received, each being bathed in carbolic solution and dressed in clean clothes before admission.

The Sisters in Peekskill were in their semi-annual long retreat when the telegram requesting help reached them. Father Grafton, the conductor, decided to end the retreat at once and return to Boston to see what the Society of St. Margaret could do to help. Of the Sisters of St. Margaret who volunteered, Sister Clare, a trained nurse from East Grinstead in England, was chosen to go. She was to meet two Sisters of Saint Mary, Sisters Ruth and Helen, in New York for the trip south. Sister Ruth, who had been called out of the retreat, wrote a brief note to her Novice Mistress, Sister Sarah:

You will understand how gladly & unreservedly I give myself to our Beloved. The bitterness came long ago, before my Profession—there is only the sweetness now.

And to her Godmother she wrote, "Pray for me, that in life, in death, I may be ever His own."

The three Sisters left Trinity Infirmary on Saturday, August 31, and arrived in Memphis on Monday to find the Sisters there becoming dispirited and downcast. Dr. Harris had been taken ill on Saturday, and by Monday his condition was critical. Mr. Charles C. Parsons, Rector of St. Lazarus and Grace Church in Memphis, came down with the fever on Monday, leaving them without a priest. The daily deaths now exceeded eighty; four Roman Catholic priests had died, and one Sister. They felt increasingly inadequate as members of their own band fell ill. Only a few hours before he was stricken, Mr. Parsons wrote to Bishop Quintard a description of the fearful conditions, adding,

The Sisters are doing a wonderful work. It is a surprise to see how much these quiet, brave, unshrinking daughters of the Divine Love can accomplish in efforts and results.

In their state of exhaustion, the Sisters were depressed by the panic on all hands, and by the sight of the death carts loaded with eight or nine rough pine coffins. There was the heat, the mosquitoes, the green gold flies and the wailing of the hysterical negroes. And all was worse by night when the fever fires flickered and the mule-drawn death wagons rumbled by to the long-drawn cry, "Bring out your dead!"

One hopeful sign was that Sister Frances had recovered from what was assumed to be a light attack of the fever, and now Sister Clare was available to help her nurse the children in the Church Home Infirmary. Sisters Helen and Ruth went to help in the Canfield Asylum. With both priests ill, there was no longer a daily Celebration; the Sisters at the Asylum realized suddenly one evening that the day had been Sunday, but one commented, "Every day is the Lord's Day now."

On Thursday, September 5, Sisters Constance and Thecla were stricken with severe attacks of the fever. Sister Constance had spent Wednesday night watching by Mr. Harris, who showed signs of recovery. Sister Hughetta, on returning from a sick call at one o'clock Thursday afternoon, found her lying flushed with fever on a sofa in the parlor of St. Mary's, dictating acknowledgement letters to Mrs. Bullock. The two persuaded her to go to bed, but she refused a comfortable mattress, telling them, "It's the only one you have in the house, and if I have the fever you will have to burn it." They had no sooner gotten the Superior into bed than Sister Thecla came from a death-bed watch and said 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." She too refused to infect the one good mattress.

By Friday morning Sister Constance was unconscious most of the time and in one lucid moment said to Sister Hughetta, "I shall never get up from my bed." That night Mr. Parsons died. Major Belton Mickle wrote,

Some hours before his death, and while his mind was yet clear he received the announcement of his approaching dissolution without a shock, and with the simple "trust that he had done his duty." I asked him if he had any request to make. He replied: "Take me away from here." I said, "Where do you wish to go? Will you go into the Church?" and, as if the world was fading from his view, and he beheld everything in a spiritual light, he thought of the Church, not as a building made with hands, but as the congregation of Christ's flock, and Baptism as the door of entrance, he signed himself with the sign of the cross and said, "We receive this child into the congregation of Christ's flock, and do sign him with the sign of the cross."

Mr. Parsons had faced death many times in the Civil War, never more bravely than now. He read for himself the commendatory prayer in the Office for the Visitation of the Sick and, shortly before he died at 10:30, murmured the words of the first Christian martyr, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, breveted a lieutenant colonel, he had commanded the Union artillery at Perryville, Kentucky in a thunderous bombardment which had been witnessed with admiration by Chaplain Quintard. After the war, while an instructor at West Point, Parsons had been present in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn, and heard Bishop Quintard preach on repentance and the divine life. The result was his confirmation and ordination. Mr. Parsons was buried in Elmwood Cemetery, a layman, Mr. John G. Lonsdale, Jr., reading the burial office. "If his life was beautiful", wrote Major Mickle,

his death was glorious: if, living, he would have built up a splended parish—dying, he has done more to build up and strengthen the Holy Catholic Church than any other individual of his generation.

On Saturday morning Sister Ruth received a triple blow—news of Mr. Parsons' death and the heartbreaking word from Dr. William Armstrong that neither Sister Constance nor Sister Thecla was likely to survive. Without clean clothes or any help, she had put all forty children at the Asylum into wrappers. During that fearful Saturday, two more children came down with fever; Miss Waring, a nurse who had come from New York to help, was raving in delirium; the other nurse had to be dispatched to the Church Home to replace Sister Clare, who was needed to care for the sick Sisters. The city's food supply was dwindling toward famine, and even stores which still had stocks of food were closed. Sister Ruth was subsisting on soda crackers and water.

She wrote from the bedside of a feverish child at 6 p.m.,

Dr. says Sr. Hughetta will have the fever tomorrow. Have telegraphed all to Mother. Mrs. Bullock also threatened. Sr. Helen, Sr. Clare & I the only workers now. Twelve cases at ch Home Infirmary. Howard As. Promised to send two nurses there if possible. I do try to be brave & cheerful. Another child just down with fever.

When the news of Mr. Parsons' death was published, some thirty priests from all over the nation volunteered to Bishop Quintard for duty in Memphis. The offers of non-acclimated persons were all declined, but that of the Rev. W. T. Dickinson Dalzell of Shreveport, La., was accepted. He arrived on Saturday night, to the immense relief of the Sisters. Trained physician as well as priest, wise and competent in every way, he administered Holy Communion to Sister Constance on Sunday morning. That afternoon arrived the Rev. Louis Sandford Schuyler, twenty-seven, assistant at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Hoboken, NJ. He was not acclimated, and had in fact been too frail in health to complete his Novitiate with the Society of St. John the Evangelist at Cowley, but he had been in Peekskill to supply for a few days when the Memphis Sisters telegraphed that they were without a priest. He left at once for the Church of the Transfiguration in New York, where Bishop Quintard was staying, and from him received permission to proceed as far as Louisville. There he received from the Bishop word of Mr. Parson's death and permission to continue to Memphis. Dr. Dalzell was most impressed with his smile and gentle manner, but wrote,

I asked him if he had ever seen Yellow-Fever, and if he realized the risk he ran in coming to Memphis. To my dismay I found that he was utterly unacclimated, and that he had come, not as many others had come, with the hope, if not assurance, that he should escape, but as the brave soldier leads the forlorn-hope knowing that all the chances are against him, but with a burning desire to help the suffering, to work while his strength lasted, and then give his life cheerfully for Christ's sake and the Church.

Sister Hughetta wrote later that Sunday, September 8, was the darkest day of all. Some two hundred new cases were reported, and as many deaths. She felt herself growing weak and feared she would die before Sister Constance. Late in the evening she was put to bed with a raging fever, and at midnight heard Sister Constance in the next room exclaim "Hosanna!" again and again until her voice trailed off. It was her last word. At ten on Monday morning Sister Constance died. She was robed in her habit and carried to chapel, in her arms some white roses that Dr. Harris had received and wanted her to have. Mr. Schuyler read the burial office, and Sisters Frances, Clare and Ruth, with Mrs. Bullock, drove out in a raw drizzle to Elmwood Cemetery where Dr. Dalzell read the interment prayers. The body had to be placed in Mrs. Bullock's family vault until the following day, for the demand for graves exceeded the diggers' ability to supply them.

In the same letter in which Sister Ruth reported these details to the Mother, she appealed for rubber sheets, old towels, a scrubbing brush, a dustpan, and for prayers, concluding,

I have just whipped a big boy for tying up a goose & beating it, & filling the babies mouths with red pepper. With forty such children our hands are full.

Strengthened by the daily Celebration, now resumed, the Sisters spent the next three days working hard and adjusting to a change in the weather—the heat gave way to a cold drizzle in which the street fires from burning bedding and sickroom furniture smouldered dismally. On Tuesday, the good physician Dr. Armstrong was stricken; on the following day Sister Clare and Mrs. Bullock became ill. On Thursday, September 12, Sister Thecla entered into rest, and late in the day Mr. Schuyler was put to bed with a high fever. The remainder of the story is awful in its brevity:

On Saturday, September 14, Dr. Armstrong died.

On Monday, September 16, Mrs. Bullock died.

On Tuesday, September 17, the Rev. Mr. Schuyler died.

On the same day, a few hours later, Sister Ruth died.

On September 17, the Rev. Charles R. Huson arrived from Florida to assist; he was stricken with fever in a few days, but recovered. Sister Frances fell victim to a second attack of fever on October 1, and on October 4 died. She had labored against overwhelming odds, with twenty to thirty children desperately ill and nurses difficult to find, even at the highest wages. Nineteen of her charges died, and she went to her bed from her God-child's grave. All but four of the children at the Church Home had the fever. Sisters Clare and Hughetta recovered sufficiently to put the Home to rights.

When frost finally came, 5,150 persons were dead and Memphis itself died—the city's charter was revoked, and for many years Memphis was merely a taxing district in the State of Tennessee. High and low were taken. The toll included Dr. Paul Otey, son of the First Bishop of Tennessee; Mr. John P. Trezevant, senior warden of St. Mary's Cathedral; the Sister Alphonse, Mother Superior of St. Agnes Academy; some thirteen Roman Catholic priests and twelve Sisters and Brothers, whose deaths while nursing the sick are memorialized in Calvary Cemetery; the Rev. E. C. Slater, pastor of the First Methodist Church, whose interment was registered at St. Mary's Cathedral; and, toward the end of the plague, Jefferson Davis, Jr., only son of the President of the Confederacy, over whose body Dr. Dalzell read the burial office on October 16.

The deaths of Mr. Schuyler and the Sisters of Saint Mary elicited a flurry of newspaper publicity which is difficult to explain. Others had died unsung nursing yellow fever victims—following the epidemic of 1855 one issue of one Church paper carried obituary notices of five priests in as many dioceses, all apparently beloved pastors of bright promise. But certain worldly considerations in the '78 story appealed to the new mass readership press. Mr. Schuyler was of aristocratic background, a Roosevelt on his mother's side, and son of the Rector of Christ Church, St. Louis; moreover, he was only twenty-seven, and his personal charm made his oblation seem more poignant. The Church papers and the penny-dreadfuls vied with each other in describing the Sisters' youthfulness and accomplishments and in tracking down their family connections. They noted that Sister Ruth was the daughter of a County Judge in Newburgh; that Sister Thecla was of the Irish McMahon family that had sought refuge in France.

Tributes poured in from many sources. Col. J. B. Keating wrote, in the Howard Association report of the epidemic,

It would be impossible to speak in too high terms of laudation of these women. . . They had won for their order an imperishable renown. . . They had proven that heroism and Christ-like self-denial are not the virtues of a particular sect.

Colonel Keating voiced a commonly mistaken idea of their vows when he added:

They had set an example worthy of the sisterhoods of apostolic times, and had silenced those of their creed whose Protestantism blinded them to the possibilities of an order whose vows are voluntary and to be revoked at will.

The Bureau of Relief of Hartford, Connecticut wired to Bishop Quintard,

To Sister Constance, to Sisters Thecla, Frances and Ruth, and to all who thus count not their lives dear unto them ... we seem clearly to hear Him say: "Inasmuch as you have done

Dr. Dromgoole saw in the epidemic the reconciliation of the sections alienated by war:

With a lavish hand the North has soothed the fevered brow of Southern suffering ... the demon of discord and contention has been hushed amid silent tears over the martyr's midnight grave.

Dr. James DeKoven saw the deaths of the Sisters as "giving the Sisterhood a place in the hearts of the people which cannot be shaken." This analysis seems borne out by the expressions of sympathy which poured in from many sources. A sermon preached by the Rev. John Jay Joyce in St. John's Church, Washington, D.C. on All Saints' Day, 1878, is ample evidence that in every quarter generosity, charity, and sacrifice had won friends for the religious life:

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 by 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 reviving the Order of Deaconesses and instituting Sisterhoods to aid the Church's work of love and mercy. . . "The Sisters of St. Mary! God bless them," we doubt not is the thought of many a living one today, as it was the thought of many a dying one over whose last hours they ceaselessly had watched.

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