Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Passion Bearers

Today we have a notable company of saints, who share one thing: They stayed where the Lord had put them, at the risk of their lives, for the love of the Lord's people. In the Christian East, saints of this kind are known as passion bearers; in the West, we have trouble with the words --- this issue came up during the canonization process of both St. Edith Stein and of St. Maximilian Kolbe.

I'll let Gerard, Narwen, and company tell the story of St. Peter Claver, who offered his entire life to the slaves in the markets of Cartagena; and I'll leave Father Alexander Men to the usual Orthodox commentators, and I'll go to that often useful Anglican work, the Book of Lesser Feasts, to tell the story of 38 people, both Episcopalian and Catholic, who gave their lives unto death in 1878. They are known as "St. Constance and her companions, the martyrs of Memphis."

Memphis, in 1878, was a thriving city of approximately 46,000 souls. That summer, there was an onslaught of yellow fever making its way up the Mississippi River, starting early in the summer in New Orleans, and proceeding north, decimating cities as it went, but the population hoped that the illness would burn itself out before getting as far north as them. That hope (wishful thought?) was futile; in mid-August, it was apparent that the yellow fever had arrived.

Now in that time very little was known about yellow fever, but it was known that inland and high and dry places were safe, and about 25,000 of the more well-to-do residents of the city fled to other high and dry places, seeking to outrun the disease (not all were successful), leaving behind about 21,000 people who were too infirm or too poor to leave, or already ill. Most of the Protestant clergy went with the refugees. But the Episcopalian and the Catholic parish priests, and the sisters of the three religious communities then in Memphis, though they had the ability to leave also, chose to stay and serve, knowing the danger. At the height of the epidemic, over 90% of the population was ill and mortality rates were extreme. The three communities of sisters were the Anglican Society of St. Mary, and the Catholic communities the Sisters of Charity of Bethlehem Academy and the Nashville Dominicans. Not only did the sisters stay, but they sent for help from their houses in other places, and reinforcements came to Memphis, the city of death.

On this day, September 9th, the first of the sisters died, Constance, the sister superior of the Society of St. Mary. By the time the epidemic ended, 38 sisters and parochial clergy, both Anglican and Catholic, had died nursing the ill and comforting the dying, and the surviving population of Memphis, from 46,000, was 800.

The Catholic Diocese of Memphis is running a series on this great epidemic, part two of ten is here (I haven't found part one or later parts yet....)

The collect for Constance and her companions, passion bearers, the "Martyrs of Memphis", from the Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts:

We give thee thanks and praise, O God of compassion, for the heroic witness of Constance and her companions, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and the dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death. Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.

Amen
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