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VOL. 123 | NO. 165 | Friday, August 22, 2008

History of St. Mary’s Episcopal Runs Rich and Deep

By Bill Dries

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In Remembrance: A memorial to victims of the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic in Martyrs Park Downtown. It was 130 years ago this week that Sister Constance, Superior of Episcopal nuns at St. Mary’s Church, arrived in Memphis to help in the epidemic. She died from the fever weeks later and is buried at Elmwood Cemetery. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

130 years ago this week, two Episcopalian nuns arrived in Memphis from New York on a journey that would become part of the city’s history. It also became a part of the tradition of the Episcopal Church.

Sisters Constance and Thecla arrived on August 20 that year as the city was in the throes of what would become the worst Yellow Fever epidemic in Memphis history.

“Arrived. Streets white with lime; wagon loads of coffins. A sad homecoming,” Constance wrote on one of several notes found later. She was Superior of the Memphis order which ran St. Mary’s School for Girls and the Church Home for orphans in 1873.

They ignored requests to stay outside the city, and instead, stayed and worked out of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and the Church Home on Poplar at Alabama. The church- turned-infirmary, which has stood on the same spot for 150 years, was at the center of a hot zone for the fever epidemic.

The church will mark its 150th anniversary as well as the Feast of Sister Constance and others who came to the aid of the city in 1878 with special services and events Sept. 13 and 14.

Archives reveal more

The notes, letters and even an unpublished 1879 account of the work of the epidemic are part of Project Canterbury (http://anglicanhistory.org), a web archive of out-of-print Anglican texts produced by volunteers and not affiliated with any particular church.

Constance, who was born Louise Caroline Darling, arrived in what was the calm after a clamor by half of the city’s population to flee Memphis once word spread that the fever had returned as it did periodically since the 1850s. She and the other nuns had tended to the sick during the 1873 outbreak, which was less severe.

One of the thousands who tried to board trains out of Memphis wrote, “We were nearly crushed in obtaining our places. At last, the overcrowded train moved off amid the loud and heart-rending cries of those left behind. I was told that a child and an old person were trampled to death near us on the platform.”

Rev. Morgan Dix, who relayed the account in the unpublished “The Sisters of St. Mary at Memphis,” wrote of the calm that followed.

“The city was still and death-like. There was something wonderfully moving to the soul in this contrast – this change from wild and terrible confusion to the calm stillness of the deserted streets, the closed stores and houses, the rapid passing of hearses and wagons with the dead,” the woeful passage read.

First-hand accounts

Constance also noted such contrasts.

“At night burning bedding everywhere, leaving black piles in front of the houses,” she wrote on Aug. 29. “One cares so much for the lovely weather, the evening light; one sees such exquisite pictures everywhere. It seems almost heartless to care for them.”

That same day, in a letter to her mother superior, she told of the “ordinary sight” of carts with eight or nine bodies in roughly hewn coffins.

“I saw a nurse stop one today and ask for a certain man’s residence – the Negro driver just pointed over his shoulder with his whip at the heap of coffins behind him and answered, ‘I’ve got him here in his coffin.’”

Constance and the other nuns rounded up children orphaned in the epidemic – sometimes found near the lifeless, rotting bodies of their parents.

“Found small neat house, pretty young girl in mourning, one corpse on sofa, one on bed, tall, young man in bed, delirious, rocking himself back and forth, scarcely clothed at all,” she wrote in an Aug. 27 note.

There were so many orphaned children that Canfield Orphan Asylum, an asylum for black children, had to be integrated. The nuns from St. Mary’s initially met resistance from those living near the asylum according to another of the sisters with Sister Constance as their carriage approached a blockade manned by citizens to keep those from the fever hot zones quarantined.

Courage exemplified

“One man said, ‘I have brought my wife and children here from the lower parts of the city to save them from the fever, and I won’t have these orphans brought out here,’” the account reads. “Sister Constance listened to each man’s complaint and then said with great calmness and gentleness, ‘Sirs, is it possible that you would have us refuse to these children the very protection you have obtained for your own?’”

The men made way for the carriage. The asylum had 26 orphans in a day’s time and double that in four days.

Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons

As Constance was writing her superiors, Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons, record of Grace Episcopal Church and part of the group at St. Mary’s, was describing the city’s ordeal to Bishop Bayard Quintard. Parsons, a West Point graduate who served as an officer in the Civil War, was having difficulty finding the words for a plague whose cause would not be known for another 20 years.

“It is impossible,” Parson wrote in a Sept. 1 letter to Quintard. “Go and turn the destroying angel loose upon a defenseless city; let him smite whom he will, young and old, rich and poor, the feeble and the strong, and as he will, silent, unseen and unfelt, until his deadly blow is struck. Give him for his dreadful harvest all the days and nights from the burning midsummer sun until the latest heavy frosts, and then you can form some idea of what Memphis and all this Valley is, and what they are going on to be for the next eight weeks.”

Their struggles cease

Parsons died from the fever six days later. Constance died three days after him. When she first became ill, she insisted it was not the fever but exhaustion.

At around midnight Sept. 9, according to a letter to Sister Constance’s superiors in New York from another of her charges, she said “Hosanna” several times, each time in a fainter voice in a room of the church house filled with flowers. At seven that morning, the bell at St. Mary’s tolled and her moaning ceased. She died three hours later.

“They robed her in her habit; they carried her to the little chapel, with those same fair roses resting on her bosom. I do not know why I think so much of the sweet flowers, unless it is that a thing that is fair and bright will take a wonderful hold upon the mind at such a time,” wrote Sister Ruth.

Sister Thecla died on Sept. 13, 25 days after she and Constance had arrived in Memphis. Sister Ruth died on Sept. 19, nine days after chronicling the death of Constance.

A fourth nun, Sister Frances, died October 4. The four are buried together at Elmwood Cemetery with their coffins arranged in a cross formation with a single four-sided headstone.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 124 481 17,865
MORTGAGES 127 530 20,565
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 4 48 2,693
BUILDING PERMITS 195 891 36,836
BANKRUPTCIES 52 262 11,426
BUSINESS LICENSES 24 139 5,848
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 26 116 6,830
MARRIAGE LICENSES 26 133 4,049