“The Martyrs of Memphis”
In 1873, Bishop Charles T. Quintard invited a group of sisters of the Sisterhood of St. Mary to Memphis, TN to establish a school for girls at the Cathedral of St. Mary.
Throughout the 1870’s, Memphis had been experiencing periodic epidemics of yellow fever, with the worst occurring in the summer of 1878, taking the lives of over 5000 people in the city. When the 1878 epidemic struck, and others fled the city, the sisters, including Sister Constance and six other Sisters of St. Mary, and Sister Clare of the Society of St. Margaret in Boston, along with other clergy, stayed in Memphis to minister to the sick.
Sister Constance died of the disease on Sept. 9, 1878, followed by Sister Thecla on Sept. 12, Sister Ruth on Sept. 17, and Sister Francis on Oct. 4. The Episcopal nuns and two Episcopal priests, The Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons and The Rev. Louis S. Schuyler, are known throughout the Anglican Communion as “Constance and Her Companions” or the “Martyrs of Memphis.” The high altar at St. Mary’s Cathedral is dedicated to them, and they are memorialized with the marker above at Elmwood Cemetery where they are buried.
Reports of that terrible time clearly details the horrors of the epidemic – hospitals overrun with the sick and dying, drastic shortages of even the most basic supplies, the dead buried in mass graves. While this episode was the worst of the disease, it was not the first, and clearly the sisters knew exactly what faced them as they stayed to tend to the sick and dying that summer.
The Gospel appointed for today is John 12:24–28, where Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Clearly, the martyrs we commemorate today were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice as they followed Jesus.
As we face the pandemic in our midst, we too are called to make sacrifices for the love of our brothers and sisters. For most of us, this is not to the level of the Martyrs of Memphis. We are asked to curtail social and other activities, to mask in public, to be willing to forego, at least for a time, many of the things that brought ease and joy to our lives, for a greater good.
A September 25, 1878, editorial in the New York Tribune. “We say sometimes in cynical wrath that all truth and justice have departed out of this world,” said “But those poor Sisters lying dead in Memphis are an all-sufficient refutation of our pessimistic generalities. This generous giving ought to silence, for a time at least, the snarls of the misanthropists. It is strange that so much dying should prove to us that the world is worth living in.” Hopefully when our history is written, the same can be said of us.
Collect for the Feast of Constance and her Companions
We give you 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 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 you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The Rev. Kate Hennessy-Keimig is bi-vocational priest serving as Priest Associate at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Omaha, NE and as an integrative psychologist in Omaha.