Today, September 9, the Episcopal Church honors the Martyrs of Memphis: Constance, Thecla, Ruth, Frances, Charles Parsons, and Louis Schuyler.
In August 1878, yellow fever invaded the city of Memphis, Tennessee for the third time in ten years. By the month’s end, the disease had become epidemic and a quarantine was ordered. While more than 25,000 citizens had fled in terror, nearly 20,000 more remained to face the pestilence. As cases multiplied, death toll averaged 200 people per day. When the worst was over, ninety percent of the people who remained had contracted the fever and more than 5,000 people had died.
In that time of panic and flight, many brave men and women, both lay and ordained, remained at their posts of duty or came as volunteers to assist in spite of the terrible risk. Notable among these heroes were four Episcopal sisters (nuns) from the Community of Saint Mary, and two of their clergy colleagues, all of whom died while tending to the sick. They have ever since been known as “The Martyrs of Memphis,” as have those of other communions who ministered in Christ’s name during this time of desolation.
The Sisters had come to Memphis in 1873, at Bishop Quintard’s request, to found a school for girls adjacent to St. Mary’s Cathedral. When the 1878 epidemic began, George C. Harris, the cathedral dean, and Sister Constance immediately organized relief work among the stricken. Helping were six of Constance’s fellow Sisters of St. Mary; Sister Clare from St. Margaret’s House, Boston, Massachusetts; the Reverend Charles C. Parsons, Rector of Grace and St. Lazarus Church, Memphis; and the Reverend Louis S. Schuyler, assistant at Holy Innocents, Hoboken, New Jersey. The cathedral group also included three physicians, two of whom were ordained Episcopal priests, the Sisters’ two matrons, and several volunteer nurses from New York.
The cathedral buildings were located in the most infected region of Memphis. Here, amid sweltering heat and scenes of indescribable horror, these men and women of God gave relief to the sick, comfort to the dying, and homes to the many orphaned children. Only two of the workers escaped the fever. Among those who died were Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Frances, the Reverend Charles Parsons, and the Reverend Louis Schuyler. All six are buried at Elmwood Cemetery.
The monument marking the joint grave of Fathers Parsons and Schuyler bears the inscription: “Greater Love Hath No Man.” The high altar in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Memphis, is a memorial to the four Sisters.
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.