Like much of the American South, the city Memphis in western Tennessee suffered periodic epidemics of yellow fever. The worst of these occurred in the summer of 1878, when over five thousand people died and the fast-growing city on the Mississippi River lost its charter because of the depopulation associated with the epidemic.
Five years earlier, a group of nuns from the recently formed Episcopalian order of the Sisters of St Mary (now the Community of St Mary) had been invited by Bishop Charles Todd Quintard to take over the operation of St Mary’s School for Girls in Memphis. When the epidemic struck in 1878, almost everyone who had the means to do so fled the city. A number of priests and nuns, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, and physicians remained behind to tend the sick and dying, despite the high risk of contracting the disease. Most of those who remained behind, thirty-eight in all, succumbed to the disease and died. The superior of the Sisters of St Mary, Sister Constance, three other members of the community (Sisters Thecla, Ruth, and Frances), and two Episcopal priests, Charles Carroll Parsons and Louis Sandford Schuyler, were among those who died. They are commemorated together on this day as the Martyrs of Memphis for the selfless sacrifice of their lives in service to others.
In a sermon “preached upon the Occasion of a Eucharistic Commemoration of the Clergy and Sisters Who Fell Victims to the Fever in the South” by the Revd Mr J. Jay Joyce on All Saints Day, 1878, we read these words, which summarize well the doctrine of the communion of the saints to which this sanctoral weblog hopes to bear witness:
How was it that She thus extended the boundaries of Her household? It followed from that intense conviction of the truth of the Communion of Saints, which was one of the glories of the Primitive Church, as the loss of it is one of the sad shortcomings of Protestantism. The Catholic Church loses not her members who depart hence in the Lord. This truth we confess in the Creed, and All Saints’ Day confirms and preserves it. And if this is so, then surely from the Altar, which is the centre of the Church’s worship, and from the Offering, Thence proceeds the centripetal force that holds together the whole body of the faithful, we should not cut off those members that have been rendered the more comely by their devotion and present nearness to the Head. So thought and acted the Early Church, when in Her liturgy She always found room for the extended commemoration of which we spoke of the faithful departed. So think and act we to-day, as we commemorate these martyr Priests and Sisters, believing that our liturgy in its church militant prayer still retains a remnant of the same memorial. This, then, is the meaning of our service; as the high Priest of old entered into the holiest of holies, with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel engraven upon his breast, so to-day the celebrant Priest and we participants enter into a yet holier place, where, instead of a symbolical shekinah, there will rest the Real mysterious Presence of our Lord, and in our hearts we are to bear the thought of all the saints from righteous Abel unto this day, but especially, and in a more vivid manner, these latest additions to their number, who from their posts of duty in the plague stricken cities have gone to the rest of Paradise. Our service means, also, that we prepare upon this high day a Sacrifice and a feast, to which we invite these martyred saints; and we invite them, not in our individual capacity, but in the name of Christ’s Church, in which they died, and in which they live forever. And we believe that in some way, though incomprehensible to us, yet in some way, they can and will accept, and will share it with us.
There is need to say but few words upon the use of our service as distinct from its meaning. Every Eucharistic Offering binds together the faithful, from the beginning to the end of time; it is retrospective and prospective; it proclaims the solidarity of the saints, and of the Household of God. And one of its uses is to show that in the Church of God one may find that immortality after which men have so vainly sought—”the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.” “Men may come, and men may go,” but the Church with Her constant commemorations of all that are Hers passes not away with the generations, and will not be blotted out with the stars; and the persuasion of this helps men to suffer and be strong, “to count not their lives dear unto themselves, that they may finish their course with joy.” And again, while the world is yet admiring the humanity and courage of these our brethren who have died for their fellow men, we have a special commemoration of them, so that, if possible, we may draw the attention of men from the world that so soon forgets to the Church that will keep Her own forever. And there may be a greater use than any other. Who can tell how far those “other benefits of His passion” may reach which we pray that we, and all His whole Church may obtain, or say that that Christ who went and preached to the spirits in prison, may not, by virtue of the pleading of His Great Sacrifice, affect His saints in Paradise to the increase of their bliss and glory?
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 for ever. Amen.
The icon of Constance and Her Companions was written by Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG, and is reproduced here with his generous permission.
The propers for the commemoration of Constance, Nun, and her Companions are published on the website of the Lectionary Page.
More documents, including commemorative sermons, on the Martyrs of Memphis may be found online at the Project Canterbury website, including the sermon quoted above.