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VOL. 123 | NO. 85 | Wednesday, April 30, 2008

St. Mary's to Mark Anniversary With Glimpses at Past

By Rosalind Guy

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BADGE OF COURAGE: Sister Constance, shown at left, who remained at St. Mary's Cathedral during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 while others were fleeing Memphis, will be honored as the church, above, celebrates its 150th anniversary. -- Image Courtesy Of St. Mary's/ Photo By Rosalind Guy

Sister Constance, the headmistress of St. Mary's School for Girls, was one of the many Catholic sisters who remained in Memphis during the summer of 1878 when the yellow fever epidemic broke out, according to the book "The American Plague."

Though there had been yellow fever epidemics before, the one in 1878 has been characterized as the worst, claiming the lives of more than 5,000 people.

Sister Constance (Caroline Louise Darling before taking religious orders) was just one of the St. Mary's nuns who didn't flee, but chose to help sick and dying people and in the process came to be considered a martyr. She is said to have gone from house to house caring for the sick, sometimes finding children living in the midst of their parents' rotting corpses.

That's just one historical aspect of St. Mary's that will be celebrated beginning Sunday, said Rev. Andy Andrews, the dean at St. Mary's.

"We are kicking off a yearlong celebration, with each month having a different theme that's connected to St. Mary's," Andrews said. "How it's helped our hospitals, how it helped start MIFA (the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association), all these other different agencies in town; we're just going to honor a different component of the life of the cathedral."

Strength and honor

That includes setting a month aside to honor the sisters who chose to stay behind while everyone else was fleeing the city.

"The nuns intentionally stayed behind to take care of the sick and the poor; they intentionally stayed behind and they ended up dying, so they were actually martyrs," Andrews said. "They ended up catching the fever themselves. Everybody else left, went to higher ground, but they stayed put right where they were."

A Sept. 2, 1878, New York Times article also listed the dean of St. Mary's, Rev. George Harris, as a victim of the yellow fever.

Andrews said all the nuns and priests who died as martyrs are now buried in historic Elmwood Cemetery.

Elmwood Cemetery received many of the victims of the yellow fever epidemic. Most sat in coffins on top of the ground for long periods of time because it was difficult back then, when yellow fever was thought to be carried through the air, to find anyone to bury the coffins for fear of breathing in the evil humors of the dead.

Two decades after the threat had passed, it was discovered that the true threat had been disease-borne mosquitoes.

'A house of prayer'

Throughout its 150-year history, St. Mary's has played a significant role in many historical events or time periods. And all those will be highlighted during the yearlong celebration.

On Sunday, St. Mary's, at 700 Poplar Ave., will hold a special event to mark the kickoff of the yearlong celebration.

During the special service, Andrews and the Rev. Don E. Johnson will celebrate an 11 a.m. Mass using the prayer book of 1792, the form of service used at the church's consecration service May 13, 1858.

The cathedral choir also will perform two anthems commissioned especially for this sesquicentennial event. Following the service, there will be a reception with food, birthday cake and activities.

Now in the heart of Downtown Memphis, the cathedral sits on what was used to be known as the city's eastern edge. Andrews said the church as a "house of prayer for all people" has been a central part of the city.

"A lot of powerful people have come through here and discovered God's word and the love that God has for all of us," he said. "So, it's been a central, powerful place for Memphis for many years."

An auspicious place

The day after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., clergy of all different races and denominations met in St. Mary's to discuss ways of bringing reconciliation to Memphis. MIFA's inception ended up being one of the group's solutions.

"(St. Mary's has) been a holy place for 150 years," Andrews said. "And amazing kinds of social change have happened in, around it and through it."

The cathedral, which became the first in the city to abolish pew rent (a fundraising practice in which regular parishioners would pay "rent" for their seats), also provided refuge over the years during floods, wars, economic depressions and civic strife.

Andrews said he and others are expecting a big crowd to help mark the kickoff of the special anniversary.

"It will do a lot of good remembering, but also to help remind us of what we're all about, the mission and purpose that God gave us from the very beginning," he said.

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