Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sister Constance & The Martyrs of Memphis

The City of Memphis, TN suffered epidemics of yellow fever, a mosquito-borne viral infection, three times between 1868-1878. The worst of the epidemics occurred in the summer of 1878, when some 5,150 people, out of a population of c. 50,000, died. During this time, St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral was considered a sort of religious center of the city because its doors remained open and the sacraments were always available.

In 1873 a group of Episcopal nuns from the recently formed Sisterhood of St. Mary arrived in Memphis, at the request of Bishop Charles Todd Quintard, to found a Girl's School adjacent to the Cathedral. When the 1878 epidemic struck, in the wake of which some 30,000 people fled the city, a number of priests, nuns and lay people, both Protestant and Catholic, as well as doctors, nurses, and even prostitutes, stayed behind to tend to the sick and dying. Sister Constance, superior of the Episcopal Sisters, three other Episcopal nuns, and two Episcopal priests are now known throughout the Anglican Communion as "Constance and Her Companions", "The Martyrs of Memphis." Since 1981, the Episcopal Church has publicly commemorated their willingness to sacrifice even their lives for suffering fellow citizens. Approximately 30 Roman Catholic priests and nuns also died during the same plague.

Episcopal nuns and priests who died from the epidemic are:

* Sister Constance (neé Caroline Louise Darling, b. Medway, MA, 1846), superior of the Sisters, headmistress of St. Mary’s School for Girls, and organizer, along with Cathedral Dean, George C. Harris, of the relief effort among the stricken
+ Sister Thecla, sacristan of St. Mary’s Cathedral and its school chapel, instructor in music and grammar (English and Latin)
+ Sister Ruth, nurse at Trinity Infirmary, New York City, NY
+ Sister Frances, a newly professed nun given charge of the Church Home orphanage
+ Rev. Charles C. Parsons, rector of Grace & St. Lazarus Episcopal Church, Memphis, West Point alumnus and professor, former U.S. Army artillery commander, served with classmate Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in Kansas, defense counsel in Custer's 1867 court-martial trial
+ Rev. Louis S. Schuyler, assistant at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, Hoboken, New Jersey

The religious and clergyt martyrs are buried at Elmwood Cemetery. A monument over the joint grave of Fathers Parsons and Schuyler has the inscription: "Great Love Hath No Man". The Sisters are memorialized by the high altar at St. Mary's Cathedral.

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.

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