A couple of nights ago I watched a Frontline documentary about the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa that is making headlines. The disease outbreak has been connected to nearly 2,200 deaths. It was pretty hard to watch as people shared how many people they had lost, recovery teams picked up the bodies for burial and as a father wasted away in one of the quarantine camps. The other thing that struck me was the many doctors who have volunteered to serve the communities stricken with this disease. A few that were interviewed were acutely aware of the human tragedy going on and were doing everything in their power to help people recover and comfort the dying. While I do not know how many of the doctors are Christians, I know they are doing God’s work in serving those afflicted with he horrible disease. In their honor, I thought it would be good to highlight the story of a group of people who performed similar acts of service during an outbreak of disease and ultimately passed away after contracting the disease they were helping treat.
This week’s saints are Constance and Her Companions. They are all officially remembered in the Episcopal church on September 9th.
While little is known about the early lives of Constance and her Companions, what we do know is how they served the city of Memphis during an outbreak of yellow fever in 1878. During this outbreak, it is recorded that 5,150 people lost their lives reducing the population of Memphis at the time by half. Many who did not succumb to the disease chose to flee the city. Because of the decrease in population, Memphis lost it’s charter was would not be officially recognized as a city again until 15 years later in 1893. Five years before the outbreak, a group of nuns from the Sisters of St. Mary had been invited to help run the St. Mary’s School for Girls in Memphis. When yellow fever broke out, Constance who was the head of the Sisters of St. Mary at the time, chose to stay to help the sick. Many other nuns from the Sisters of St. Mary along with other Catholic nuns, many Catholic and Protestant priests, doctors, and even a bordello owner named Annie Cook remained in the city to treat those suffering from the outbreak. Most of those who remained, including Constance, would contract yellow fever and pass away. This is why they are also considered the “Martyrs of Memphis” because they gave their lives in the service to others as a witness to their devotion to Christ.
There are many names that we do not have but, some names of those “companions” who are recognized in the Episcopal church are:
- Sister Thecla – Music, English and Latin teacher at St. Mary’s School for Girls
- Sister Ruth – nurse at Trinity Infirmary, New York
- Sister Frances – director of the Church Home orphanage
- Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons – rector of Grace Episcopal Church, Memphis; former U.S. Army artillery commander
- Rev. Louis S. Schuyler – newly ordained assistant rector at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, Hoboken, New Jersey.
So, as we’re also remembering the doctors who are serving patients stricken with the Ebola outbreak, I’m going to tweak a prayer the Episcopal church offers in the remembrance of Constance and her companions:
We give you thanks and praise, O God of compassion, for the heroic witness of the doctors currently serving Ebola patients in Western Africa, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, are steadfast in their care for the sick and the dying, and love not their own lives, but are seeking the treatment and comfort of others above all. 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