What is now St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee, began its life not as a grand cathedral, but as a small wooden church on the northern edge of the city. Its first service was held on Thanksgiving Day of 1857. Calvary Church, Memphis’ first Episcopal outpost, was the "high church" of the city, established in 1844. But St. Mary’s started off with a broader view of whom the church should serve.
“We were actually a little mission on the edge of the city,” Anne Boykin, a longtime member of St. Mary’s, told me recently. “We were this little wooden church. If you see a map from that time, it's like the city ended right there. The tradition of those churches back then was that people paid pew rent. But St. Mary's was going to be a house of prayer for all people, and we did not charge pew rent.”
I got curious about St. Mary’s in early September, thanks to one of the rituals of the Episcopal Church (which I started attending in 2018 after 40 years of swearing off organized religion altogether, but that’s another story for another time). The ritual I’m talking about is daily morning prayer. You don’t need to hear from me all the details of how morning prayer works. I just want to draw your attention to the fact that every morning brings three short prayers called collects (pronounced KAH-lects), and that the first of the three is particular to a day or week in the church’s calendar.
You call always count on a collect for the major saints of the church — Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John and so forth — on the church’s selected “feast days” for such saints. But you have to dig a little deeper into the ritual to discover something the church calls the “lesser feasts and fasts.” The prayers for these “lesser saints” appear throughout the year, and they cover church pioneers from the first century all the way up to people who lived in my own lifetime, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
I’ve always believed the stories of so-called “lesser” folks are important, so I began to pay more attention whenever the morning prayer cycle mentioned one of them. But it wasn’t until last month when I noticed the “lesser feast” devoted to “Constance, Nun, and Her Companions, 1878.”
Here is the beginning of the prayer devoted to their memory:
“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.”
Wow, I thought. Here we all are, living in our own time of plague; I needed to know more about Constance and her companions. Who were they? What made them so steadfast in their care for others that they would sacrifice their own lives to that purpose? And, to tell the truth, I needed some inspiration of my own about my “commitment to those in need.”
The standard quick Google search will tell you right off that Constance and her companions are often spoken of by another name: the Martyrs of Memphis. But when Constance and her companions first came to Memphis from their home convent in Peekskill, New York, they weren’t planning to become martyrs. They were planning to be schoolteachers.
Sister Constance was born Caroline Louise Darling in Medway, Massachusetts, and became an Episcopal nun while she was still in her 20s. Constance and her companions — Sister Thecla, Sister Ruth, Sister Frances, and two priests, Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons, and Rev. Louis S. Schuyler — first came to Memphis to start a school for girls in 1873. That fall, they were ready to begin classes when the first of two yellow-fever epidemics hit the city.
That’s when this group of schoolteachers “became nurses,” as Boykin told me. “They came down with the task of forming this school, certainly not with the intention that they would ever run into the situation that they did. That’s what's so amazing about their story, and it holds true for us today. We never know what we're going to get into. We start into something, and then situations change. They became nurses and visitors of the sick and providers of food and loving care in horrible, horrible situations. Here they were in the summer in Memphis where the temperature is sky high, and they're going visiting to these homes in their long black robes — their habits — and it's just incredible to think what they experienced.”
Constance and her companions made it through that first epidemic of 1873, and by 1874 were able to open the doors of their school to 80 students, and established a second school for poor students. By early August of 1878, things were going so well that Sisters Constance and Thecla were able to return to their motherhouse in Peekskill for a little rest and retreat.
They weren’t there for long. On August 15, they got the news that yellow fever had returned to Memphis and was hitting the population far harder than it had five years earlier. Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social Welfare project offers a more complete history of this final epidemic than I could ever offer in this column, but allow me to quote a short piece of that document:
“Panic spread throughout Memphis and at least two people were trampled to death at the railroad platform as crowds rushed to flee the city. Sisters Constance and Thecla left at once to return to Memphis, stopping in New York to arrange for forwarding of contributions and medicine. When they arrived in Memphis on August 20, they rejected offers to take up residence in the countryside and immediately turned the convent into a dispensary. Half the population of Memphis had fled by then and rigid quarantines were imposed, but the death rates mounted.”
The sisters dove immediately into their work, caring for hundreds of the sick and dying, regardless of their race or economic station. But only 20 days after Sister Constance arrived back in Memphis, the plague took her, too, on September 9, the day the Episcopal Church now designates for its annual celebration of this “lesser” saint. They say she chanted, “Alleluia, Osanna,” as she died, and those words long ago were inscribed on the high altar at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis.
What force would bring any woman — any human being, for that matter — to offer herself up so freely in the face of a pandemic? I would never argue that the force is God, because each of us is free to find our way to God — or to none at all. I would certainly never suggest that force is my church, or any other house of worship in any faith.
But the question is all too real in this pandemic year. The journal Medical Economics reported last month that more than 7,000 healthcare workers around the world have died from COVID-19 as they worked to save the lives of others.
Perhaps the answer is a simple one, too easily overlooked: Inside most of us there is something that tells us that we can’t abide the suffering of any of our brothers and sisters.
Not long ago, Bishop Rob Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta made a bold declaration: that if you are a human being on this earth, then you should recognize that every other human being is your brother or your sister: “The best we have ever done on this planet as a species has been done by those who realized that we are siblings,” Wright wrote. “Likewise, the worst that has ever been done has been done by those who choose to deny that we are siblings.”
As for me, I choose to agree with my bishop on this question. The evidence is all around us. We can see the evil that follows when people in power deny that we are all brothers and sisters. And we can see the good, the love, the peace that follows when we recognize that we truly are all brothers and sisters.
I hope our world will be past our current pandemic when next September rolls around. But if we are not, I’ll pay even closer attention to the example set by Constance and her companions, and I know that I will pray for the inspiration to show “a like love and commitment to those in need.”