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VOL. 133 | NO. 181 | Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Anniversary of Yellow Fever Epidemic Shows Ongoing Need in Community

By Bill Dries

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St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral dean Andy Andrews joked with Margery Wolcott over the weekend that her Constance Abbey street ministry has lasted longer than lots of restaurants do at five years.

The ministry is in two houses next to St. Mary’s Cathedral on Poplar Avenue at Alabama Street.

“We offer for the street people, and whoever wants to come, coffee on our porch and we’re open for a couple of hours for a shower and doing laundry,” Wolcott said as she and Andrews talked in Morris Park, the city park across Poplar from the cathedral.

The Saturday, Sept. 8, health fair and block party there was part of the church’s commemoration of the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic. The cathedral was an important shelter during the epidemic and that day is a feast day in the Episcopal church.

Constance Abbey is named in honor of Sister Constance, an Episcopal nun who was among the nuns and priests who died in the epidemic that devastated Memphis.

“When we are engaged in the neighborhood as a church should be, spreading good news and love, we feel like we are following in the footsteps of them the way they served others,” Andrews said.

The health fair and block party also included Springdale Baptist Church and Collins Chapel CME Church as well as the Memphis Medical District Collaborative and the Victorian Village Inc. Community Development Corp.

“We’re trying to dance our way to health,” Andrews said. “We are also trying to chip away our prejudice, one party at a time, by getting together and bringing communities together. Memphis is still so separated and there’s a lot of nice people.”

Dr. Susan Nelson of Church Health said the neighborhoods devastated in the epidemic that took the wealthy, poor and those in between 140 years ago still have needs.

“They died because they stayed and took care of the people in this neighborhood,” Nelson said of what are referred in the church liturgy as the “Memphis Martyrs” and “Constance and her Companions.”

Sunday’s feast day featured a pilgrimage by St. Mary’s members to Elmwood Cemetery, where some of the mass graves of Yellow Fever victims are in a section of the cemetery referred to as “No Man’s Land.” It also includes the graves of four nuns from St. Mary’s, including Sister Constance.

Sister Constance was the superior of the nuns from Peekskill, New York. She had been to Memphis during an 1873 fever outbreak. Notes she kept during her time are quoted in an unpublished 1879 account, “The Sisters of St. Mary,” posted online in recent years by Project Canterbury at anglicanhistory.org.

“Arrived. Streets white with lime; wagon loads of coffins,” Constance wrote upon her arrival. “A sad coming home.”

“Gunpowder exploded to clear the air,” she wrote later. “At night burning bedding everywhere, leaving black piles in front of houses.”

The streets mentioned in many of her accounts and those of the others at St. Mary’s remain the same in the area.

“I rode in haste to Mosby Street to communicate a dying girl,” wrote Rev. Charles C. Parsons to his superiors. “You know how short the distance is, and yet before I reached the house there were three instances of persons dying unknown given me, with piteous appeals to procure their immediate interment.”

Parsons wrote that he was trying to keep up with messages from outside the city, which was quarantined, wanting to know more about what was happening in Memphis – a situation he wrote was “indescribable.”

“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.”

Seven days after writing the letter, Parsons died from the fever.

“We thought, why don’t we have something for the people of the neighborhood,” Nelson said. “Within this area we have two high-rise apartments that are federally subsidized housing. There are hundreds of people who live within a block of our church who are at federal poverty level. Those are the people we hope to reach.”

Scott Blake, executive director of Victorian Village Inc. CDC, also talked of including the high-rise residents in a much-talked-about renovation of the park.

“We would like the residents of the low-income housing and also the rental residents, like the medical students who live there, to all feel welcome here at the park and feel safer when they are here,” he said.

Blake is leading an effort to raise approximately $1.2 million to complete the park renovation. Plans for it are complete and have been approved by the city along with work on the sidewalks around the part that now makes them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The fundraising could include a tax increment financing – or TIF – district to put property tax revenue into the project.

“The plan is a full renovation of the park including 36 new lights, pedestrian-level lighting in the park, additional security, all new children’s equipment and then a renewed basketball area with a seating berm around it,” Blake said. “So, it gives a little separation between the basketball and the play areas. It will make a big change.”

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