Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Martyrs of Memphis

Today on the Church calendar, we remember Constance and her companions, or the Martyrs of Memphis. You can read about them here and here.

Also, check out the wonderful icon of the Martyrs of Memphis written by the Rev. Tobias Haller.

Another fitting memorial is the following sermon by the Rev. Eilene Warwick, a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi.

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 8, 2002

Today we celebrate the feast of Constance and her companions, the Martyrs of Memphis. One Hundred and Twenty Four years ago a group of people became known as the Martyrs of Memphis. Ironically, these people were survivors of the Civil War, or as we in Mississippi call it the War between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression. However, the folks in Memphis simply called it "the recent unpleasantness". Who were these people?

Constance's companions were Amelia, Thecla, and Hughetta - all nuns in the Anglican Community of Saint Mary housed in Memphis. The nuns were sent to Memphis from New York in 1873, to establish a school for girls - it is not known if they experienced a culture shock or not - but they managed to establish the school. According to newspaper accounts, this "band of women" were well educated;they were strong women; they were women of culture, grace, and refinement; they were extremely well qualified to teach the daughters of the South in the art of social conversation - music, manners and refinement - and "loveliness of character." They had their job description cut out for them!

In August of 1878, the city of Memphis was struck by a second epidemic of yellow fever - the first attack of this viral disease was in the Summer of 1873 - which the Sisters of Saint Mary survived. Sisters Constance and Thecla had returned to Peekskill, NY, for a little well deserved R.and R. when they received news that once again Memphis was struck by another epidemic of yellow fever. Upon hearing this news they left at for once for Memphis, stopping only once in New York to arrange for money and medicine to be sent South.

The question will always be asked, "Why did these nuns return to a hopeless and helpless situation????"

Perhaps they were marching to the beat of a different drummer as our God was drumming the cadence. They were acting out the true essence of Christ's love, showing us that people hear what you do, much more than what you say! Bad news travels fast, so they say! In the year 1878, the news of the day traveled by word of mouth, Pony Express, news papers, railway, and steam boats. As slow as it was, people did communicate the news. However, we must remember there was no satellite coverage in 1878, no news helicopter buzzing around the city, looking for a window of opportunity to land on the copter pad and interview the stricken. There was no NBC Nightly news with Tom Brokow reporting the confusion as people fled the city, leaving behind only death and dying. There was no Fox-News with Brit Hume reporting the news - fair and balanced and unafraid. There was definitely no Larry King Live, interviewing the Rev. Mr. Charles Carroll Parsons before his untimely death caused by yellow fever. Without the presence of the "Media Moguls," the stories were told with a striking contrast.

One account reads: "There were crowds fleeing in terror, escaping by horse back, carriages, wagons, carts, and even on foot. Men, women, and children hurrying to escape to a higher, cooler, drier climate where the mosquito-born virus was not present."

Don't you think this sounds just a little too familiar?

The following is a direct quote from a memoir written by Morgan Dix, sometime Pastor of the community, published in 1896: "A few brave souls, with equal resolution, speeding into the valley of death; men and women of the medical profession, nuns and clergymen helping to assist the dying, hospital nurses, and the calm-faced "daughters of the Lord" seeking to bring Christ to His despairing people."

Members of this talented and gifted community did the best they could under less than ideal conditions - 5000 people died - 45,000 lived! It was truly a miracle that 45,000 people survived the epidemic when you stop to think they survived without one of the world's safest and least expensive pain and fever medication - ASPIRIN - which by the way was not discovered until 1897, nineteen years later.

In addition to these courageous Nuns, we must also add the name of The Reverend Mr. Charles Carroll Parsons who died September 7, 1878, as a result of the epidemic. Reverend Mr. Parsons portrait hangs in the Parish Hall office at the Chapel. It is important to note that his grandson, great-grandchildren, and great, great, grandchildren were members and are members of this Chapel parish community today.

Following the Civil War, Mr. Parsons was confirmed and ordained. He became Rector of St. Lazarus Parish in Memphis. It was at this time he married the grand-daughter of the Johnstones, who built the Chapel of the Cross. A good friend of mine has this unique saying - "Let me say this about that." So let me do just that.

As I read and study the history of the Martyrs of Memphis, I see a definite parallel between the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon, and the downed plane in Pennsylvania. How? The heroic rescue attempts, the colossal pain and suffering of both events will be with those who lost family and friends as a result of the attack and also as a result of this devastating disease for the remainder of their lives. For the rest of us who were more distanced from both events, the memories will forever chill our hearts and imprint our minds.

Today's Gospel reading from Matthew concerns the togetherness of Christian community having borne witness to holy things and the response of the community to stay connected in the event of disaster - whether it be 124 years ago or one year ago. Looking back in perspective, it also concerns how we treat each other as the body of Christ - and how we as a community treat those whom God brings to us!


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