St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, TN

St. Constance and her Companions are honored in the Anglican (including Episcopal) Church for their extreme dedication in caring for the sick during a yellow fever epidemic. Sister Constance was born Caroline Louise Darling in 1846 in Medway, MA, USA. She died on September 9, 1878. The Martyrs of Memphis are honored on that day.

In 1878, an epidemic of yellow fever struck Memphis, Tennessee, a low lying city along the Mississippi River in the United States where the mosquitoes were thick and infectious. Although unaware at the time that the infection was carried by mosquitoes and not through the humid air, most people abandoned the city and fled to higher ground. Those that stayed were either already stricken with the disease, poor, or dedicated caregivers. St. Constance and 37 other martyrs gave of themselves completely until, one by one, they succumbed and died of the fever.

St. Constance was the Sister Superior of the Community of St. Mary and in charge of their school. Once the yellow fever struck, these sisters, trained as teachers, were compelled to nurse the sick. According to a biographer from her order, “A soup kitchen was at once begun in the Sisters’ House, and during the epidemic, soups, broths, gruels, and tea were made daily for the sick, and distributed by the Sisters on their round of visits.”

Also among the 38 Martyrs of Memphis were priests, doctors, and laypeople either already in Memphis or who traveled there in answer to the great need. In a letter to her Mother Superior in Peekskill, NY, Sister Constance described the terrible situation:

August 30, 1878


Your telegram brought me a kind of Brightness, but I cannot help a great deal of anxiety for Sister Helen and Sister Ruth, my sense of duty in the matter is so divided between the feeling that I ought to secure all the help I can for these poor suffering people, and the fear for those who come. I will guard them to the utmost; but they know and you know that they are offering their lives. I am glad to have the East Grinstead Sister. They are trained nurses, and she will be invaluable. I will not send for the Clewer Sisters if I can help it. Dr. Houghton telegraphed to know if I wanted them. But on Monday if the fever spreads I must send, for we shall want all the help we can get. Cases that are nursed seldom die. Most of the dead have died of neglect or utter ignorance on the part of their attendants. The panic is fearful to-day. Eighty deaths reported, and half of the doctors refuse to report at all.

We found one of our nurses lying on the floor in her patient’s room down with the fever, another is sickening. Our ward visitor was here just now to give me some directions about to-morrow, ‘For I am down,’ he said. When I said something cheering he put a hand that fairly burned me on my wrist and asked me to feel his pulse if I could. He is a bright, brave young man, our opposite neighbor; his father is dying, his two poor sisters are here asleep, and I am sitting up waiting till Dr. Harris calls me to go to the old man with these two poor girls. There is little hope that the change which must come to-night will be for life, but I suppose it will not come before twelve.

Mr. Parsons had a chill this evening; I shall know before twelve whether it was the chill. I really believe that Dr. Harris and I and the two negro nurses are the only well persons anywhere near. Mr. Brinkley’s gardener and his son are ill. Dr. Armstrong has shut himself up for the night declaring himself worn out. Sister Thecla and Miss Murdock are in bed worn out with last night’s nursing and watching. We like Miss M., who came to us from Ohio (she has had the fever), so much. Sister H. is well; Sister F. much better; no more cases at Church Home, none at the Canfield Asylum, where there are thirty-two children gathered from the infected houses.

This is the dreariest night we have had. If anything happens to Mrs. Bullock and to me, will you take care of little Bessie? Mrs. Bullock has helped us bravely, working like one of ourselves, and never shrinking. She was with me in the most pestilential room I have yet had to enter, and I never saw her hesitate.

The calls for food and wine are incessant. I have been on my feet almost the whole day, for our old cook would not do a thing if one of us did not stay with her, whenever we could be spared from the sick.

A nurse has just been here to say that he will not stay another night with his two patients—a father and daughter—if the dead mother is not buried. The body has been there for nearly two days, and no undertaker can be found who has time to bring a coffin. We are absolutely forbidden to touch the dead even if a coffin could be found. Dr. Harris is all that earthly strength can be to us, but he is far from strong. I do not think he even hopes to get through. Pray doubly for us now, dear mother. I think of the Sisters who are coming and of those who are praying at home so constantly.

Your loving CONSTANCE, S. S. M.

Nine days later, after working almost non-stop especially in the final hours of the two priests, Drs. Harris and Parsons, Sister Constance realized that she had the fever and agreed to go to bed. Knowing that they’d have to burn it afterwards, she refused the comfortable mattress. Young, hard-working Sister Thecla refused the same mattress when she returned from her visits and calmly announced that she had the fever as well. The two died within hours of each other. 

The epidemic raged on until the cold weather of late autumn finally killed the mosquitoes. The population of Memphis was so depleted that the city went bankrupt and lost it’s city charter. It was reorganized as a city fourteen years later. One of the surviving sisters later reflected:

Being then released from my charge at the Asylum, I returned to the still more pressing duties at St. Mary’s, where hundreds now came for relief, and calls for the Sisters to go to the sick had become so numerous, that it was impossible to attend to half of them. I remember feeling, for a moment, almost overcome with heart-sickness, as I saw some go away with the unsatisfying promise that the Sisters would come to their dying ones the next day, one day too late. We could obtain no nurses that day or the two following, for any amount of money, and the Sisters had made more promises than they had time to fulfill.

It is sometimes said to me now: ‘The Sisters worked themselves to death unwisely; why did they do so?’ A look into one of those disappointed faces would have been a better answer than any I can give. ‘Unwisely!’ When, in each sick and dying person the Sister beheld her suffering Lord! How could she hold back, from fatigue, or weakness, or wisdom!

The high altar of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in  Memphis, Tennessee, is dedicated to the memory of the sisters of St. Mary’s who died. It is inscribed with St. Constance’s last words, “Alleluia Hosanna.”

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. – Collect, Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints

For More Info:

The Sisters of St. Mary’s at Memphis
St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral History

It’s heartening to know that not all the caregivers perished. Some survived due to past exposure to milder versions of yellow fever, some arrived during the city’s recovery, and some survived because they ate and slept regularly.

St. Constance and the others hardly slept at all and ate whatever they could in between their nonstop visits. They simply could not resist the calls from those who desperately needed their help in providing liquids, food, prayer, and sacraments. As St. Constance stated in her letter “Cases that are nursed seldom die.” In other words, many patients given simple care, survived. St. Constance and her companions did all they could to provide this basic care to as many suffers as possible. 

If they had only taken as good care of themselves as they did of their patients, they may have survived to continue their good works. The particular irony is that it may not have been the fever that actually killed them, but overwork. It’s in that irony they became martyrs.

Unlike the Martyrs of Memphis, we can take care of ourselves so we’re able to take care of others for a long time to come. One way is to load up our freezers with homemade soup so it’s ready when needed for our family, friends, or ourselves. 

I had a cold last week. And while my freezer held enough leftovers to cobble together dinners for my family, it contained no soup.

Several times I ate Raman Noodles. (A good first meal after a stomach virus as well.) The salt restores electrolytes, the rice noodles are easy on the stomach, and the chicken broth soothes the throat, hydrates, and comforts with that special something in chicken soup that’s been scientifically proven to speed recovery. In the final 30 seconds of cooking, I beat an egg into the soup for a shot of strength-providing protein. 

Another alternative is to purchase homemade chicken soup locally. My favorite local source is Lovey’s Market. Their soup is like a bowlful of health and it inspired me to create my own recipe of chicken soup, loaded with immune system-boosting vegetables, chicken, and yummy broth. It’s perfect for the freezer. 


32 oz box Organic Chicken Broth or Stock
32 oz box Organic Vegetable Broth or Stock
(Or homemade chicken\vegetable stock)
3 or 4 cups water
Organic chicken (2 or 3 skinless breasts, or 4 or 5 boneless skinless thighs or 1 ½ pounds leftover cooked chicken)
1 – 12 oz can whole, stewed, or diced tomatoes (to taste)
3 large leaves of Kale, shredded
1 medium zucchini, sliced
1 medium squash, sliced
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
3 or 4 carrots, sliced
3 or 4 celery stalks, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced  
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, combine chicken stock, vegetable stock, and water. Place on high heat.

Add whole pieces of chicken. Add tomatoes. (If using whole tomatoes, cut into bit sized pieces.) Shred kale by hand into bite size pieces. Add to pot. Add zucchini, squash, onion, carrots, celery, garlic, salt, and pepper.

Boil until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken and cut into bit size pieces, return to pot. Lower to simmer for about two hours.

Ladle into bowls and serve with bread or crackers.

Just because the other name for chicken soup is Jewish Penicillin, it doesn’t mean it can only be slurped during illness. It’s yummy, enjoy it whenever you want!

This recipe can be modified for taste, availability, and convenience. Frozen vegetables work well while garden-fresh veggies add a extra touch of Ididitmyselfness. 

Once your freezer is full, you could always make some more to carefully deliver to a local shelter or soup kitchen where your pot o’ goodness would be greatly appreciated by the caregivers and their clients.

Wondering what can be done to prevent diseases spread by infected mosquitoes? Check out Nothing But Nets.

(Originally posted on 5/1/2012 to Saints and Recipes on Blogger.)

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