Saturday, September 09, 2006

Martyrs? Memphis, Tennessee?

[The Orthodox-minded among us holler out, "Them is Passion-Bearers!", but more on that a little later....]

Today we have an interesting little passel of saints, who share one thing: they stayed where the Lord had put them, at the risk of their own lives, for the sake of the Lord's beloved people. In the West, we sometimes have trouble with the words. From the ancient times, there were martyrs, who proclaimed the truths of the faith and were killed for it; and there were saints who spent their lives in the service of the Lord's people, who were patted on the head, ignored, and condescended to unto a ripe old age. Now, the new-martyr Father Alexander Men might fit into group one, even though his Jewish heritage and his denunciations of the Mob were as aggravating to the powers as his preaching was. I'll let the Orthodox bloggers do him due honors today. And St. Peter Claver sj, who was the humble servant and catechist of the slaves in the Cartagena slave market, is a definite fit in group two. I might get to him later in the day, but if I don't, Narwen or Penitens or the Jesuit bloggers will definitely write his praises.

I'll take today a mixed group of 38 people, Catholics and Episcopalians, who gave themselves unto death in 1878, remembered in the very useful Episcopalian Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, as "Constance and her companions, the Martyrs of Memphis". Some of the ones who just don't fit well into the Western saint schema --- who spent their lives in the service of the Lord's beloved poor, and died, or were killed, because of it. But, in the East, they have a title for these, whether it was the microbe or the militia..... and that title is "Passion Bearer".

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 places, 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 Episcopalian 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 Episcopalian and Catholic, had died nursing the ill and comforting the dying, and the surviving population of Memphis, from 46,000, was 800.

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.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While their sacrifice was heroic, the were not passion bearers, beause they were killed by a plague, not at someone's hands. I could be wrong.