Reaching out during a time of crisis and giving of one’s self is what the Church remembers today in the life and ministry of a group of women who devoted their lives in service of others, Constance and her companions.
It was the summer of summer of 1878, and Memphis was in the midst of an epidemic of yellow fever. Many fled the town; others could not leave because they were so ill. Constance, an Episcopal nun of the Order of St. Mary, and her companions stayed behind to nurse the sick. A group of Roman Catholic nuns stayed as well to look after the ill.
Sister Constance had arrived just a few years before, in May of 1873. She was a mere 28 years old, and sent as Mother Superior. With her came Sisters Amelia, Thecla and the Novice Sister Hughetta to set up a school.
Bishop Quintard had given the original bishop’s residence near St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis for a new school.
In August of 1878, yellow fever broke out, and panic spread. Half the population of Memphis had fled, and rigid quarantines were imposed. Nevertheless, the death rates mounted. The sisters stayed behind to nurse the sick, but on 25 August, Sister Frances came down with fever. On Monday night the 26th, Sister Hughetta became ill, many of them orphans.
Fr. Charles Parsons, the last Episcopal priest in Memphis and their chaplain, came down with the fever and died on 6 September. Now the Sisters had no priest. Epidemic deaths now exceeded 80 a day. They whole ethos of the city was insane: death wagons passed in the streets, looting and murders were commonplace.
Sister Constance wrote in her diary: Yesterday I found two young girls, who had spent two days in a two-room cottage, with the unburied bodies of their parents, their uncle in the utmost suffering and delirium and no one nearer them but a Black man who held the sick man in his bed. It was 24 hours before I could get those two fearful corpses buried, and then I had to send for a police officer to the Board of Health before any undertaker would enter the room. One grows perfectly hardened to these things—carts with 8 or 9 corpses in rough boxes are ordinary sights. I saw a nurse stop 1 day and ask for a certain man’s residence—the driver pointed over his shoulder with his whip at the heap of coffins behind him and answered, “I’ve got him here in his coffin.”
With no one else willing or able to take charge, the Sisters agreed to take over management of the city’s Canfield Asylum that had served mainly as an orphanage for Black children and was as yet free of the pestilence. But famine had arrived, and all that the Sisters had to eat were crackers and water.
When the news of the deaths of the local priests got out, over 30 priests from all over the country came to Memphis. Father W.T. Dickinson Dalzell came from Shreveport, La., since he had already survived the disease and was immune—he was also a trained physician. With his arrival, daily Eucharist resumed and the Sacrament was carried to the dying Sisters. The next day Father Louis Schuyler arrived from New Jersey.
But the deaths followed. On 9 September, Sister Constance died at the age of 33; on 11 September, Sister Ruth and Sister Clare; on 12 September Sister Thecla died and Fr. Schuyler became ill; on 17 September Fr. Schuyler died; on the 18th, Sister Ruth died. Sister Helen, Sister Hughetta and Sister Clare became ill but survived.
By the time fall came, over 5,000 people were dead, and the city of Memphis itself had gone bankrupt. Excerpted from Stars in a Dark World: Stories of the Saints and Holy Days of the Liturgy by Fr. John-Julian, OJN.
Let us pray: We give you thanks and praise, O God of compassion, for the heroic witness of Constance and her companions, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and the dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death. Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Please remember everyone on our prayer list, especially the families of those who have recently lost loved ones, the Stevens and McCraw families.
Your servant in Christ,
Fr. Chester J. Makowski+
St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church
Galveston, Texas 77550