The sisters here and the friends who attend here regularly probably know the story of Constance and her Companions but it’s up to me to share it with new friends and hopefully give everyone new insight.
In 1867 Bishop Quintard of Tennessee was attempting to rebuild his diocese after the Civil War. He was friends with Mother Harriet in New York and turned to her for help. In 1870 she sent Sister Martha to Memphis to run a home for war orphans. Unfortunately Sister Martha died the next year. Sister Harriet decided to send a bigger presence of sisters with Sister Constance as the superior. The Bishop gave them his residence in Memphis, which was near the Cathedral, for the new school. This was very near the Mississippi River. They were ready to start school in the fall of 1873 when a Yellow Fever epidemic hit the city. 40K people fled Memphis, 5K caught YF, and 2000 died. The sisters worked from dawn to dusk making house calls and nursing the sick. When the epidemic subsided they continued to care for those recuperating.
In 1874 they finally opened their school with 80 students. A nearby house became a home for poor black children taught by Mrs. Bullock, an associate of the order. In the summer of 1878 the sisters returned to the motherhouse in Peekskill NY for rest.
They were there only two weeks when news arrived that Memphis was again under siege of Yellow Fever so they returned at once. Half the population had fled, rigid quarantines were imposed but nothing seemed to stop the spread. At this time no one knew exactly what was causing this horrendous disease. They realized that it was worse by the River but didn’t know more than that. This second epidemic turned out to be far worse than the first one. People fled the city in droves, even doctors and nurses who were so desperately needed. Some of the sisters came down with the fever. They were asked to take over the Canfield Asylum for fever orphans. Fifty came.
The sisters begged for help and four more sisters came. The remaining two priests died. By now 80 people/day were dying. Corpses in rough boxes were a common site. On Sept. 5 Constance and Thecla were stricken as was the priest from Grace Church. Sister Ruth reluctantly took charge. Famine set in. Two priests, one from LA and one from NJ came to help.
Disease took many. Constance died on Sept. 9; Sept 12 Sister Thecla; Sept 14 Dr. Armstrong; Sept. 16 Mrs. Bullock, Sept. 17 Father Schyler; Sept 18 Sister Ruth. Sisters Clare and Hughetta recovered from the fever and along with Sister Helen brought order out of chaos. When the frost came the fever was gone. 5K had died and the city of Memphis was bankrupt.
The sisters are buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. On the high altar in St. Mary’s Cathedral are inscribed their names and Sister Constance’s last words, “Alleluia! Hosanna!”
We now realize that Yellow Fever is carried by the mosquito. Not much was known about mosquitoes then but they did know that along the River they were omnipresent. They breed in water and are everywhere yet people didn’t put two and two together that the mosquitoes were actually carrying the disease. There were no chemicals to spray on them, nor antidotes for those bitten. It was a terrible scenario.
I lived in Memphis for seven years and other Delta communities in Arkansas. Mosquitoes are controlled but still a major annoyance. Because we know that they are carriers of disease we can constantly be vigilant to test them regularly. The epidemic in the nineteenth century left people clueless and frustrated.
We turn to John’s gospel: 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
This describes vividly the life of Constance and her companions.
Nine years later after the deaths of Constance and her companions Sister Isabelle, who had laid in bed with a long and painful illness, told the sisters that Constance had come to her room November 15 and then again a few days later saying you will not die until late Christmas night. And that’s what happened.
In 1887 Mother Harriet visited Tennessee and selected a site in which to move in Sewanee where sisters could find relief from the humid hot summers in Memphis. So here we are! [Many more details can be found in the book “Ten Decades of Praise” by Sister Mary Hilary, CSM]
Throughout these years, the Community of St. Mary’s has continued to do God’s work by serving God’s people. Constance and those who follow her example have shown us their dedication to the ministry of Jesus Christ, wherever and however it takes them. They remain dedicated to Benedictine spirituality.
We who live on this mountain and oblates and associates and friends are forever grateful for the presence of the sisters who follow in the way of Constance and her companions. Their example will forever guide us to minister to those in need.
It’s a good time on this day of remembrance to look to our lives today and determine what we want the future to look like by looking to Constance and her Companions as models. It’s impressive that those who were chosen to leave New York for Memphis were so young and so willing. They were true to their vows of obedience to pick up and go to a place unknown where they would minister in a way strange and unfamiliar. After all, they went with the intention of starting a school but were needed as nurses in the epidemic. We will not always be able to determine our own path in ministry but must be open to where God sees fit to use us.
As each of us reflects on our own calling, let this day be a day to pray specially for God to call more young women to join the sisters here at St. Mary’s to give their lives to God in vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Pray with me that, as God is planting the seed in their hearts, these women will respond by coming to see a life dedicated to prayer and ministry in the same way that Constance and the nuns of Memphis did.