Yellow fever epidemic of 1878: Vicksburg

(Passages from the Provincial Annals of 1878 used with permission of the Daughters of Charity Archives).

By September of 1878 the yellow fever epidemic experienced by the Sisters in New Orleans had spread to Vicksburg, Mississippi. As in New Orleans, Sisters were among those who caught the disease, and Sisters were among those who died of the disease.

The Provincial Annals of 1878 note:

The condition of Vicksburg was becoming hourly more desperate. The epidemic assumed its most fatal character, death frequently occurring in a few hours. Whole families were swept away, a dead body was to be found in every house on the levee. Scarce a human being was to be seen on the streets, save the Sisters hurrying on their mission of mercy, or some gentlemen of the “Howards,” a benevolent association composed of Catholic and Protestant. Bishop Elder was here, fighting for the lives and souls of the whole city dying around him. It belonged to his diocese. From morning until night he was found at the bedside of the dying, administering the Sacraments, consoling the sick, encouraging all. If he gave himself any rest, no one could discover it. The day before his own prostration he was sought for, and found in the yard of a poor old woman splitting wood in order to build a fire and prepare some nourishment for her. Within was the poor woman and her two children, down with the fever. The good Bishop had dressed and made comfortable the poor little ones, before putting himself to the task of splitting the wood.

Bishop Lercay, Bishop of Natchez was also in Vicksburg, formerly pastor there and knowing the place and people, he had hurried at the first breaking out of the epidemic to the assistance of Bishop Elder and the devoted priests of that city. Day and night he labored until attacked by malarial fever.

But now Bishop Elder was himself attacked by the contagion and five of his priests were already dead. The Sisters of Mercy were all either dead, sick or exhausted. The Reverend Mother, who a few days later fell a victim herself to the disease, appealed to us for assistance on September 10th. The demand nearly coincided with the reception of Sister Agnes Weaver’s letter. Up to this time none had been sent to nurse the sick, save those who had had the fever, but an exception was made on the 11th, she was despatched in company with Sr. Severina Brandel of Detroit to the relief of the exhausted Sisters of Mercy of Vicksburg. Quarantine, rigid as it could be made, lay all around the plague stricken city. By a circuitous route they finally reached it Monday, 16th of September. They had been preceded by the Sisters from Emmitsburg in route for Port Gibson. Sister Emerita writing on the 11th to Mother gives an account of her arrival in Vicksburg on the 8th and of her few days service at Port Gibson before returning to Vicksburg with Sisters Leonora and Catherine.

“We arrived at Vicksburg at 5 p.m. got a carriage and went straight to the Bishop’s. His room door was opened as we entered the house. He saw the cornette and called us. O, Mother if you could only have seen the delight of the poor Bishop! He clasped his hands and raised them to heaven. We had only five minutes to stay as the boat was starting for Port Gibson. As we passed Canton, I asked if they had a priest there, and was told that one had already died and that the death of the second was expected at any moment. No priest there. So many dying and no one to offer them the consolations of religion. Every place looks desolate in poor Mississippi. Sisters Mary Elizabeth and Regis were glad to see us; they had arrived at Port Gibson the day before. I have just come from the house of a poor colored woman, whom I baptized. I wish you could have heard her making Acts of Faith and Love. I am sure God will have mercy on her. [p44] I offered that first Act for you dear Mother. Last night Sister Mary Elizabeth and myself went at the request of the Doctor to see a dying woman. She had never been baptized. We baptized her; she died making Acts of Faith and Love. Love to our dear Sisters. And what shall I say to yourself, dearest Mother? I feel so thankful to you for sending me, yes more so every hour. How sweet it is to help those poor people to die well.
Yours devotedly
Sister Emerita Quinlan

On the 14th inst. [September 14] Sister Emerita writes again: “I have been all day yesterday and last night helping to take care of a poor young priest. Father Vitelo, only one year from Italy. He said two Masses last Sunday, and died today at 12 o’clock. I feel sad just looking at that poor priest die. He would not take his medicine unless I would taste it, to see if it was right. Poor Bishop, he regains his strength very slowly. We did not want him to know that fine young priest had died; but he said we might as well tell him, he had learned to take things as God sent them. He is so grateful to you dear Mother, the tears come in his eyes when he speaks of you.”

On Monday 16 of September, Sisters Severina and Agnes Weaver arrived from Detroit, completing the little band of five Sisters for Vicksburg, [p45] Sister Severina in charge of all. Writing of her arrival there to Mother, she says: “As we did not know what to do, or where to go, we walked up to St. Paul’s Church where Bishop Elder was. He cried like a child when he saw us, and raising his hands, blessed God and thanked you, and all for their self sacrifice. I told him in a few words that here we were to do whatever he would tell us. We then went to the convent of the Sisters of Mercy, and went to bed very much fatigued.”

The next morning Sisters Severina and Agnes entered upon their duties in the care of the sick. On the 21st Sister Agnes was prostrated with the contagion. On the evening of the 27th, while we were taking our recreation, a telegram was handed to Mother. It read thus: “Vicksburg, Miss. Sept 27. Our dear Sister Agnes died at twenty minutes past one this morning, our beloved Father’s Day, after an abundance of black vomit and an agony of twenty four hours. She got her desire; my heart is crushed; but all so kind to us. Will be buried in the Convent yard after having Mass and Communion offered.”
Sister Severina.

“The novena of deaths is ended,” said a Sister softly, and on the Death of St. Vincent.” It was in fact the ninth since the commencement of the epidemic, and none have occurred since.


Filed under Epidemics, Health Care, Ministries

2 responses to “Yellow fever epidemic of 1878: Vicksburg

  1. Sister Rita Bozel

    The Daughters have been heroic.


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