Updated: Jan 17, 2021
Sermon delivered at All Saints' Chapel in Sewanee, TN.
Many of us in the Episcopal Church have been pondering the ministry and witness of “Constance and her Companions” ever since the pandemic came to the US and things shut down in mid-March. On April 17, for instance, the Episcopal News Service featured an article about this group of religious sisters and priests, whose ministry was centered at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis, from which they cared for the sick and dying during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. The “Martyrs of Memphis,” as they are popularly known, actually comprised about 35 nuns and clergy as well as lay workers and nurses across denominational lines--Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Protestant—who lay down their lives for others during the worst outbreak of yellow fever the city of Memphis had ever experienced.
Yellow fever is a virus carried by a mosquito native to Africa. It came to this continent through the slave trade. It causes fevers as high as 105, attacks major organs, and injures blood vessels, causing internal and external bleeding. When it finally overtakes the liver, the resulting jaundice tints the skin and whites of the eyes a deep yellow, from which the disease gets its name. It can kill very quickly.
Memphis and other cities both North and South had suffered outbreaks of the virus before, but this time it was particularly deadly. Starting in New Orleans in the summer of 1878, the virus travelled up the Mississippi Valley, reaching Memphis in mid-August. Five years before, in 1873, the Bishop of Tennessee, Charles Quintard, asked the Sisters of St. Mary, then located in Peekskill, New York, for some sisters to come to Memphis to start a school for young women and to take charge of the orphanage that was already there. They agreed, and Bishop Quintard gave them his own Episcopal residence next to the cathedral to begin their venture. He then relocated to Sewanee to oversee the diocese, which spanned the entire state, from this more central location.
August 1878 found Sister Constance, the Superior of the Memphis community, and Sister Thecla at the Motherhouse in Peekskill, to which they had returned for rest at the conclusion of the academic year. On August 14, they received a telegraph from George Harris, Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral, saying that yellow fever had again struck Memphis. The sisters immediately left their serene retreat in Peekskill for the long journey back to Memphis to join Dean Harris and their other sisters in the work of nursing the sick, caring for the dying, organizing relief work, and providing shelter for the numerous orphans. (You can see a window showing Constance ministering at a sickbed here in All Saints—it’s on the lower right of the third window down in the nave.) The cathedral was located in the epicenter of the epidemic, and our commemoration of the Martyrs of Memphis focuses on six who died within days of each other while working from there: Sisters Constance, Thecla, Frances, and Ruth, and two priests: Fr. Charles Carroll Parsons of Grace Episcopal Church in Memphis and the newly-ordained Fr. Louis Schyler, who had served as an assistant to Parsons at his former parish in New Jersey. Sister Frances ministered to the thirty-four children at the cathedral orphanage, thirty of whom came down with the fever. Twenty-two of these children died. Sister Frances herself died on St. Francis’ Day, October 4. Sister Constance died on September 9, the day on which we commemorate her and her companions. She was only 33. One of the survivors, Sister Hughetta, came to Sewanee in 1896 to head the new St. Mary’s School for girls founded here, and her spiritual descendants are the St. Mary’s Community of the Southern Province who are our near neighbors.
But to return to the situation in Memphis: Of the city’s original population of 50,000, most of those with the means to escape—about 30,000--did so, although a few doctors, clergy, and other generous souls remained to help their neighbors. So of the 20,000 that were left, most were poor with scarce resources. Then, as now, the virus took its most terrible toll on those already suffering economically and socially. Of those 20,000, 17,000 are estimated to have contracted yellow fever, and more than a quarter of the remaining residents—over 5,000 people—died. The city of Memphis was so badly depopulated that the State of Tennessee revoked its charter for fourteen years.
Statistics do not convey the horror. In unbearable heat, at the height of the epidemic about 200 died each day. There were not enough healthy people around to bury them, and the bodies piled up. In a letter to Bishop Quintard, Fr. Parsons writes:
“Our pastoral duties extend from one end of the city to the other and include all classes of people. It is incessant. . . . Sometimes they pass away, or into a final state of unconsciousness, before we can reach them. . . . A large number of those to whom we minister are utter strangers until we reach their bedside. Friday I was called to see . . . a sick family consisting of a mother and two children. I drove there as quickly as possible. They were bringing down the stairs the remains of the son. In a little room at the head of the stairs the faithful Mobile nurse had composed the body of the little daughter in death, and by the bed hand by the mother was breathing her last. The same evening I rode in haste to Mosly Street to communicate a dying girl. You know how short the distance is, and yet before I reached the house, there were three instances of persons dying unknown given to me . . .”
The letter goes on in the same vein. Shortly after writing it, Parsons would himself be dead.
There are obvious parallels to our own situation, yet some significant differences, too. I have already mentioned the disproportionate impact on the poor, which includes in our case (and in theirs), people of color. Like Constance and her companions, today there are doctors, nurses, and health care workers of all stripes who daily risk their lives to minister to the sick. Some of them have also died, laying down their lives in most cases for strangers. I think, too, of the hundreds of retired doctors and nurses in the New York area—themselves among the most vulnerable age group—who volunteered to help when the need was greatest. Yet there are many others deemed “essential workers” who are not volunteering but who are compelled to work to support their families, often receiving some of the lowest-paying wages around. These people have to worry, in addition, about putting their families as well as themselves at risk.
The yellow fever virus and COVID-19 are spread differently, so loving one’s neighbor takes a different form in each case. Our virus spreads with lightening rapidity through personal contact, hence quarantine, social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing are the necessary expressions of love. Yellow fever is carried by a mosquito. Tragically this was unknown until 1900. Contact with the sick did not spread it; and the quarantines that were imposed were useless. They needed improved sanitation and mosquito control.
Yet in exhausting and ghastly conditions, these saints of Memphis gave comfort to others. St. Paul speaks of this dynamic of consolation, one that passes from God to us, and then through us, to others. We heard it as our first reading: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also is our consolation abundant through Christ” (2 Cor.1:3-5). The saints of Memphis knew the suffering of Christ, and they knew the consolation of Christ, and they passed it on to the sick and the dying. They were spiritually sustained in their work by daily Morning Prayer at the cathedral and regular celebrations there of the Holy Eucharist. Constance’s last ecstatic words were: “Alleluia Osanna.”
Yet there is still more. Our gospel reading from John takes place in Jerusalem after the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday; in other words, just a few days before Jesus’ passion and death. Some Greeks approach Philip with a request: “We wish to see Jesus.” Jesus honors this request by announcing an imminent revelation of himself. Throughout the Fourth Gospel Jesus has said repeatedly that his hour has not yet come. Now for the first time he declares: “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.” But how is this to happen? It is by the deeply paradoxical movement into death towards life: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” How do we see Jesus? Sister Hughetta answered this for herself when she wrote: “It is a wondrous happiness to be so near our Lord in his suffering now.” She saw the suffering Jesus in the suffering sick and dying—men, women, and children, most of them very poor. And they encountered the compassion of Christ in her, whether they could name it or not. It was—and is, all Jesus—in them, in us, a love poured forth from the superabundant compassion of God.