The Martyrs of Memphis
“Arrived. Streets white with lime; wagon loads of coffins. A sad coming home.”1
So wrote Sister Constance, whom we remember today along with other Episcopal religious and priests who perished in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. Sisters Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Frances, and priests Charles Parsons and Louis Schuyler were six of the over five thousand people who died between August and October.
At a time when so much of the city’s population was fleeing—fleeing according to the wishes of the civil authorities—these sisters and priests came to the city, into danger, into a “scene of desolation and death.” Over the course of just under a month, this corps of sisters and priests worked themselves to exhaustion nursing the sick, caring for orphans, coordinating and disbursing donations, and celebrating mass.
Sister Constance, the Superior of the community of the Sisterhood of St. Mary in Memphis, gives a sense of the frenzied pace of the sisters’ activities: “Sat down to acknowledge donations when Sister T. reported Mr. C just taken with chill, no nurse. Went with her to attend to him. . . . Mr. C. better, but wife very ill. . . . Met man with a telegram . . . ‘Father and mother are lying dead in the house, brother is dying, send me some help, no money,’ . . . Man said, ‘Will you go to that poor girl?’ We went at once.”
For many of us, it may be hard to wrap our heads around the scenes described here from a single day. For others, though, this may seem all too familiar. So many people need help, and the demands can be constant and exhausting. How can we console so many?
But God is a God of consolation, as Saint Paul reminds us. And God consoles us so that we might console others. We can console because we ourselves have been consoled; we can comfort because we ourselves have been comforted.
The martyrs of Memphis demonstrate the extraordinary things ordinary people can do. We can’t know all the ways that they themselves found consolation, from God and from others. We can’t know all the ways that they themselves found consolation, to persevere through exhaustion and fear and sickness. But we do have a short note, from the same day Sister Constance reported visiting “that poor girl”: “Sent Mrs. B. to Howards. She returned in the midst of the loveliest sunset (one notices these things so strangely).”
One notices these things so strangely. Our consolations often come in unexpected ways, breaking in upon the demands of our daily lives. And these consolations often provide us with the unexpected grace and strength to meet those demands. How often, amid your own busy lives, does something break in on your awareness, pull your attention away from the flurry and frenzy of activity? How often does that something prove to be exactly what you need to get you through, to meet the demands of the next day, the next hour, the next moment? How often does that something allow you to do the extraordinary?
Martyrs of Memphis—Constance, Thecla, Ruth, Frances, Charles, Louis—pray for us.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.