Yellow fever epidemic of 1878: New Orleans

(Passages from the Provincial Annals of 1878 used with permission of the Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives)
During the 19th century the Daughters of Charity witnessed not only the Civil War but also outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and yellow fever in cities where they were serving. The Provincial Annals of 1878 record the Sisters’ experiences during an outbreak of yellow fever that occurred in a number of Southern cities.

The Annals’ first mention of the outbreak was in July of 1878, in New Orleans.

In the latter part of July the city was thrown into quarantine, the last passenger train on the Mobile and Orleans Rail Road leaving it on the evening of the 29th. Four Thousand tickets were sold at the two principal depots of the city this day. From this time the inhabitants were literally shut in the city. Did they attempt to leave it, they quickly found themselves in the custody of some health officer belonging to a neighboring city as yet unvisited by the plague. Supplies went liberally, the generous contributions of the whole country and freight trains ran into the city; as for passenger trains there was no one who wished to go. Engines came forth at intervals, received and transmitted the mails and then returned. In the streets, doctors’ buggies and funeral processions were the principal objects to be seen; all the throngs of fashionably dressed people had been swept away. The sun was scorching. Its rays were considered peculiarly dangerous. The people save from stern necessity stayed at home.

The first appearance of the epidemic in our houses was at St. Simeon’s School three of the
Sisters were prostrated at once. One Sister Loyola Lawler, died on the sixth day. These cases were quickly succeeded by three others. In the absence of the Sister Servant, detained from home. This was indeed a house of desolation and distress. It was in the beginning of the epidemic, in the first bewildering terror that the scourge was down upon them. Recovering sufficiently they generously shared in the sick nursing around them, for all were one family now, and as soon as the number of cases diminished in one house, the Sisters from there hurried to the relief of the house most sorely pressed.

During the first weeks of August, the Hospital, the Hotel Dieu and the vast Charity Hospital with its hundreds and hundreds of sick were rapidly filling up with victims of the contagion.

On August 22nd, Sister Agnes Slavin, Sister Servant of the Charity Hospital writes to Mother Euphemia.

New Orleans
Charity Hospital
August 22, 1878

My very dear Mother,
The grace of our Lord be with us forever.

My many occupations have not left me one moment to write to you. I have had Sister Keenan sick with the fever since Monday morning. Thank God this is the fourth day and she is doing well. Dr. Smythe comes three times a day. I feel so grateful to him, as I have unbounded confidence in him. The other dear Sisters are well and we have plenty to do. The young Sisters try to rival the old ones in their care of our poor fever cases. If our dear Lord only spares the Sisters, I will be satisfied.
Affectionately in our All
Sister Agnes Slavin
U.d.o.c.s.o.t.p.s.
[the acronym means “unworthy Daughter of Charity, servant of the poor sick”]

The annals go on to note that some of the Sisters caught yellow fever as well, and some died from it. Back in Emmitsburg, the Sisters at the Central House did the only thing they could do: constant prayer for the Sisters and the areas affected by the outbreak.

And the Central House was not unmindful of its duty to pray. Every Sister had permission to go as far as her duty permitted, to pray before the Blessed Sacrament for the cessation of the Scourge. A picture of St. Roch was exposed in the Community room, a lamp burning on the altar. A prayer to sue for God’s mercy in time of danger was said publicly at the noon or dinner Examen, the Parce Domini sung every Sunday at Benediction.

The Sisters’ prayer were to no avail, as Sisters continued to get sick, and continued to die.

Charity Hospital, New Orleans
August 29, 1878
My dearest Mother,
The grace of our Lord be with us forever!
On my dearest Mother, we are in the midst of sorrow, and none but our Lord to help us. Our good little Sister McKenzie died this morning, after an illness of a few days. O, what a frightful disease it is! I have nursed our two poor Sisters. I could form no idea of the disease before. Our Sisters are overtaxed, and I was obliged to ask Sister Angelica for some help. She sent me Sisters Hall and Mary Frances. O, dear Mother please pray for your poor Sisters in the South. All are full of courage and good will. Sister Mary Agnes offered to take any Sisters who were afraid of the fever, but none were willing to leave their posts. Father Beecher is sick with the fever.
Devotedly and affectionately,
Sister Agnes Slavin
U.d.o.c.

By September the outbreak had reached Vicksburg. Accounts of the yellow fever in Vicksburg will be the subject of the next post.

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