Saint John’s

Memphis, Tennesee


One hundred thirty years ago this month, a group of people were martyred in Memphis, Tennessee. Their dying was the consequence of their choice to remain in the city, during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, to nurse the sick and dying.  Who were these people?

1.          Constance was an Episcopal nun of the order of the Sisters of St. Mary.  She had come to Memphis as Sister Superior of a new ministry in the South.  Sister Constance was reared a Unitarian in Boston. You can imagine that her family had been less than pleased when she had been baptized in the Episcopal Church.  They were extremely opposed to her becoming a nun. In 1878 She was thirty-three years old and by all accounts a talented artist, an able teacher and linguist, a beautiful attractive woman.

Other sisters served in Memphis:

2.      Sister Thecla, a native of Georgia recently professed, worked in the school.

3.      Sister Hughetta, twenty-five, still a Novice, was a member of the eminent Snowden family in Memphis, helped in the school.

4.      Sister Ruth was the daughter of a County Judge in Newburgh NY.

5.      Sister Clare

Two priests are also commemorated:

6.          Charles Carroll Parsons is a favorite of mine. His grandsons and daughters, great-grandchildren, and great great grandchildren were members of The Chapel of the Cross where I was once Rector. He was an 1861 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. He was in the famous class that graduated in the Spring of 1861 and fought each other that Summer.  He fought at Shiloh and many other battles.  He had commanded the Union artillery at Perryville, Kentucky.   At Perryville, his entire gun crew was killed.  When the confederate forces came up the hill, realizing that he could not escape, Parsons drew his sword and stood at parade rest awaiting his impending death.  The Southerners were so impressed by his courage that they allowed him to walk off the battlefield untouched.

After the war, Parsons served in the West and was George Custer’s defense counsel when Custer was court-martialed. While an instructor at West Point, Parsons had been present in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn, and heard Bishop Quintard preach on repentance and the divine life.  The result was his confirmation and ordination.  In the 1870’s he came as Rector of St. Lazarus Parish in Memphis.  It was at this time he married the granddaughter of the Johnstones who built the Chapel of the Cross.  When the yellow fever epidemic came in 1878 he stayed in Memphis unwilling as always to abandon his post.

7.      Mr. Schuyler was of aristocratic background, a Roosevelt on his mother’s side, and son of the Rector of Christ Church, St. Louis. He was only twenty-seven, and his family violently opposed his coming to Memphis.  By his own account, when he learned that all the priests in Memphis were sick with the fever he felt a call to come to help.  He worked around the clock for four days and then contracted the fever.

A close friend of Charles Parsons, Major Belton Mickle wrote, “Mr. Parsons had faced death many times in the Civil War, never more bravely than now.  All the other priests were sick with the fever so he read for himself the commendatory prayer for the dying and, shortly before he died at 10:30, murmured the words of the first Christian martyr, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

Sister Hughetta wrote later that Sunday, September 8, was the darkest day of all.  Some two hundred new cases were reported, and as many deaths.  She felt herself growing weak and feared she would die before sister Constance. Late in the evening she was put to bed with a raging fever, and at mid-night heard Sister Constance in the next room exclaim “Hosanna!” again and again until her voice trailed off. It was her last word. (The words Alleluia Hosanna on this altar table commemorate her last words.)   At ten on Monday morning Sister Constance died.  She was robed in her habit and carried to chapel, in her arms some white roses that Dr. Harris and received and wanted her to have.  The hymn, Christ is Made the Sure Foundation, which we will sing at the retiring procession today, was sung at the burial office of Sister Constance.

Mr. Schuyler read the burial office, and Sisters Frances, Clare and Ruth, with Mrs. Bullock, drove out in a raw drizzle to Elmwood Cemetery where Dr. Dalzell read the interment prayers.  The body had to be placed in Mrs. Bullock’s family vault until the following day, for the demand for graves exceeded the diggers’ ability to supply them.  On Thursday Sept. 12, Sister Thecla entered into rest, and late in the day Mr. Schuyler was put to bed with a high fever.

The remainder of the story is awful in its brevity:

Saturday, September 14, Dr. Armstrong died.

Monday, September 16, Mrs. Bullock died.

Tuesday, September 17, the Rev. Mr. Schuyler died.

On the same day, a few hours later, Sister Ruth died.

On September 17, the Rev. Charles R. Huson arrived from Florida to assist; he was stricken with   fever in a few days, but recovered. Sister Frances fell victim to a second attack of fever on October 1, and on October 4 (Feast of St. Francis) died.  She had labored against overwhelming odds, with twenty to thirty children desperately ill and nurses difficult to find, even at the highest wages. Nineteen of her charges died, and she went to her bed from her God-child’s grave.  All but four of the children at the Church Home had the fever.

Sisters Clare and Hughetta recovered sufficiently to put the Home to rights.  When frost finally came, 5,150 persons were dead and Memphis itself died, the city’s charter was revoked, and for many years Memphis was merely a taxing district in the State of Tennessee.  High and low were taken.  The toll included Dr. Paul Otey, son the first Bishop of Tennessee; … toward the end of the epidemic, Jefferson Davis, Jr., only son of the President of the Confederacy.

We call these people saints because we see in them God’s grace strikingly revealed.  We call them martyrs/witnesses, because they died for the faith.

But dying is not the only way to be a martyr.  St. Clement of Alexandria, “The most perfect martyrdom is that of a person who, for love of Christ, have loved their fellows. … a life, lived before Christ, in self-control and love.”


Someone has said that, “Suffering is the one promise life always keeps”.  That is true.  HOW we respond to what happens to us is more important than WHAT happens to us.  Let us reflect on the Gospel reading for today.  In the Gospel reading for today we hear the essence of John’s Gospel. In “Verses 23-24, Jesus declares, “I tell you, most solemnly, unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.

J. Sanford MYSTICAL CHRISTIANITY p. 247  “Hidden in each grain of wheat is en potentia (as a potential) the whole plant of wheat.  As long as the grain is just a grain it remain just a single reality.  “But if the grain dies, then in its dying there is released those forces that bring the plant to fruition,. and from that plant comes a future multitude of seeds.  Thus the death of the single grain brings about the emergence of a great abundance.  Christ uses this image to reveal the mystery of his own death.  By dying on the cross great forces are unleashed that spread throughout the spiritual world.  One could say that with the death of the physical incarnation of Christ there emerges the Cosmic Christ, the new consciousness that spreads throughout the world and takes root in the souls of countless people.”  For those baptized into the mystery of  Christ’s dying and rising from the dead, the protection of our own ego and its limited existence is no longer to be our ultimate concern.  St. John shows us the root of the Christian response to the suffering life brings, “those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”.  Does this mean that you hate your life?  No, I don’t think so.  What I believe is that it points to a life rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.  Since the resurrection our hope is not based merely on ourselves.  Our future is in the hands of the one who died and rose from the dead.  We give up that which we cannot keep in order to gain that which we cannot lose. We are called to the life-long process of depending on God as we respond to the challenges of life. In matters of faith, like many other things in life, it’s not what you know, it’s WHO you know that matters.

The best most of us can mange is to give God our problems is to give God our problems, one at a time when they have become too much to bear. We call God in when we can’t handle life and then go on as before controlling everything around us.

Human beings learn very early that some things in life can’t be FIXED. We also learn that we do not want to experience the pain of loss so we become very, very careful to avoid situations where we will get hurt. What we cannot avoid we try with all our might to control.  We live as if we us we think that God helps those who help themselves and further believe that WILL-POWER is the key to happiness.  It isn’t.  The key to happiness is SURRENDER!

It is really simple.  God doesn’t just want our problems.  He wants us!  He wants us to surrender and give ourselves to Him.  “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” Surrender is a process that will not be completed in this life.  To the degree we surrender, the energy/grace comes from beyond us and we learn to pick-up and put-down with courage everything is no longer dependent on us.  Through the death of our control the single grain does bear all sorts of wonderful and unexpected fruit!

None of us have yet faced the crisis that those Christians faced 130 years ago here in Memphis.  Yet life being what it is challenge will come our way.

The Martyrs of Memphis learned the lesson of dependence on God on the battlefield and in the discipline of the convent. They gave up marriage and family and comfort and any number of things. In their death the Martyrs of Memphis are a sign to us that we need not fear.  The one who loves us most said that he would never leave us or forsake us. That’s good news.  Perhaps this week we can relax and risk a little bit.  It’s a process. It’s a process that leads to life, and that life everlasting.