The Martyrs of Memphis

Today is the Feast Day of the Martyrs of Memphis. Constance and her companions, three other sisters and two priests of the Episcopal Church remained in the city during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 nursing the sick and burying the dead until they also succumbed to the plague. They are an example of courage and faith in the face of almost certain death.

For the past eighteen years I have lived with the story of the martyrs. As Rector of Chapel of the Cross, Madison Ms, I met the descendants of Father Parsons and learned of his courage and his remarkable journey. He was a 1860 graduate of West Point and served as an artillery officer in many battles of the Civil War. He was at Shiloh, Nashville and Perryville. After being wounded he taught and West Point and commanded the Corp of Cadets when President Lincoln ordered them to put down the draft riots in New York City in 1863.  This civil unrest (the worst in American history) was made famous in the film The Gangs of New York.

After the war he served in the west and was George Custer’s defense counsel  at Custer’s court marshal. A deeply religious man he resigned his commission and became an Episcopal priest and eventually came to Memphis as Rector of what today is the Grace of Grace-St. Luke’s. He remained in the city working around the clock with the sick and dying finally succumbed to the fever. There being no other priest who was not sick with the fever he read last rites for himself and died facing death with the courage learned on the battle fields of the Civil War.

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