YELLOW FEVER AND
SAINT JOSEPH CHURCH
This building was constructed in 1841-42 as Christ Episcopal Church at the corner of the present day Randolph Street and Van Dorn Avenue. When construction was begun on the present Christ Church in 1857, this building was sold to the town’s small group of Catholics and moved to its present location on College Avenue. The Catholic population of the town increased dramatically during the building of the Mississippi Central Railroad but declined after the War when the railroad headquarters was moved to Water Valley.
Eventually, the Catholic community wanted to open a school. Colonel H. W. Walter, a prominent non-Catholic citizen of Holly Springs, had been stationed in Kentucky during the War and was familiar the Sisters of Charity and the school they operated at Nazareth in that State. He petitioned the Bishop for assignment of these sisters to open a school in Holly Springs, and in 1868 Bethlehem Academy was opened for the education of young ladies within an enrollment of 50 students.
In 1878 there were 13 Sisters of Charity at Bethlehem Academy. Fr. Anacleto Oberti1, a 31-year-old native of Morra, Italy, was the St. Joseph parish priest. That summer a Yellow Fever epidemic struck New Orleans and spread northward. Holly Springs was initially spared but fell victim to its own generosity when refugees from Grenada and Memphis were welcomed into the city. On the 25th of August two Grenada refugees died. On the 31st ‘ the first Holly Springs victim fell. Within a week an epidemic was declared and panic-stricken citizens began to flee the town. The population before the epidemic was 3500; during the plague it was 800. Bethlehem Academy was not in session and the Sisters could have fled the town. Instead, they chose to remain and nurse the sick. Of the 13 teaching Sisters present at the outset of the epidemic, all eventually contracted the disease. Six of these and the parish priest died tending the sick. They lie in Hillcrest Cemetery beneath a monument erected in 1879 by the grateful citizens of Holly Springs.
A Relief Committee was formed to oversee the operation of the town. Its head was Mr. W. J. L. Holland, formerly no great friend of the Catholic Church. He established a hospital in the Courthouse and, on September 5th obtained doctors, nurses, druggists, a telegraph operator and other relief personnel from the Howard Association of New Orleans. Below are excerpts from contemporary correspondence:
September 21st TELEGRAM from Mr. Holland of the Relief Committee.
Frank Walter and his brother James, who so faithfully and efficiently filled their places surrendered to the terrible monster. Hardly the news had reached our ears before it was announced that Dr. Sheldon . . . of Mobile, who had charge of the hospital here, was a victim. * * * Many bright and shining lights may go down in this great struggle, but not one of a more brilliant character than Dr. Sheldon. Like Dr. Manning whose heaven-lit blue eyes seemed to reflect the depth and purity of a great and good soul within, Sheldon was mourned by us all. His convalescents were numbered by the score, and they all speak of how tenderly the little doctor nursed and cared for them. The situation is growing worse.
The hospital is full, and it looks as if every man must go down. The godlike Sisters in their mission of mercy have paid in their conduct a beautiful tribute to Christian fortitude. There are thirteen of them, belonging to Bethlehem Academy, the Catholic school here, and ten have fallen. First the good Father Oberti died like a true Christian minister. Father Lamy, his successor, goes his daily rounds with a smile on his face which we love to see.
Every messenger and clerk around this office have fallen. . . .(E)ach morning as I take my place there are tales of sorrow told me. * * * Such a calamity never befell a people. . . . (O)ur suffering people tender their prayerful thanks for the kind and generous assistance their friends in all parts of the Union have shown.
W. J. L. Holland
September 25th LETTER from Fr. Theodore Lamy to Fr. M. Bouchet.
I received your telegram this afternoon and answered immediately. We are passing through very sad times here. It is now three weeks since Providence permitted I should reach here in time to give the last Sacraments to Fr. Oberti. At my arrival, the Court House had already been changed to a hospital. There were four of the good Sisters to take care of the sick. Two of them caught the disease, but they are now well; these are Sisters Victoria and Corintha. When Sisters Stanislaus, Amanda, Cecilia, Ethelinda, and Fernanda got the fever, they were immediately carried to the Hospital, where the best physicians were. We had in charge Dr. Sheldon of Mobile, Ala., who is now in a very critical condition himself.
Sister Stanislaus died last Sunday morning. I buried her here in the City Cemetery, where henceforth the Sisters will have a lot of their own. * * * When Sister Scholastica got sick, she wished to remain at the Convent. Dr. Sheldon promised to visit her three times a day. She asked me to bring Sister Stella to take care of her. Poor Sister Stella herself fell sick on Sunday evening, and from the first was taken with a violent fever. Tuesday morning I heard her confession . . . (and) administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. In the evening of Tuesday, congestion of the brain was declared. We were three men to keep her quiet in bed. * * * As she said she wished to have a priest by her at her death, last night at 11 o’clock they came to awake me. The black vomit had begun, and I remained with her till she died at 5 o’clock in the morning. The President of the Howard Association, on hearing the sad news of her death, went with me to the undertaker and ordered the best coffin in his store f or her, whom he called a martyr of charity. * * * Theodore Lamy
October 8th LETTER from Sr. Scholastica to Mother Columba.
I know how anxious your dear good heart must be about us, and therefore, shaky as I feel, I must send you a line. You received the news of poor Sister Victoria’s death, which occurred last Saturday morning. She took a relapse the Monday before. Sister Laurentia came home the next day from the Hospital. * * * Five have gone. * * *
Did you hear that Sister Honora was taken with the fever this day a week ago? She had it in a very slight form, but is still unable to be up. Day before yesterday, dear hard-working Sister Laurentia was taken down with the fatal scourge. So far, she is doing "beautifully," the nurses and doctors say. * * * She is the last of our dear ones to have the fever. * * *
Our other dear Sisters, Cecilia, Lamberta, Amanda and Ethelinda are improving. Sr. Fernanda does not improve as fast as they. Still, I hope we will have no more relapses, and as soon as the frost comes, we will all get strong. * * * I am certain Capt. Jack Frost never met so heartfelt a welcome as he will receive this year.
* * * You cannot form an idea of what a terribly racking disease this is. It seems to make one forget all but the presence of the destroyer. Oh! the stupid sleep of the fever is hard to shake off. * * * The Howards have been very kind to us and continue so. They allow us one man nurse and three female nurses. I hope we can dispense with some of them by the end of the week. Love to all,
October 18th TELEGRAM from Mr. Holland of the Relief Committee.
Since the inception of the disease, there has been the most indescribable confusion in every department. This was occasioned by the heads of every department being stricken first. For instance: The Nurse Department lost Colonel Walter first, Colonel Falconer next, and their successor was so completely exhausted by his labors I had to look after it for several days myself. His clerks, one by one, left, till seven have gone down. In the drug store, three were stricken down, and two of these from New Orleans. In the post office all stricken, two died, two convalescent. In the express office two had fever, one died. In the Commissary Department all went down. In the Medical Department eleven physicians fell, four died, and one of the convalescents will never get well. Of ministers here five fell, two died. Of messengers for Relief Committee not one could stand; all went, half died. Of nurses two out of seven had it, several died. Of teamsters all save one, and since this was written he has fallen; several died. Of the Relief Committee I am all (that is) left of the first body, the second also. It has been recruited seven times and still there are only three who have not had the fever – two of these of New Orleans, who are acclimated. I would not make this sad recital, but I feel well satisfied the outside world does not appreciate our situation. * * * The Sisters of Bethlehem have exhibited a heroism simply grand and beautiful. They came into the hospital and watched with sleepless care the stricken patients, as if it were a pleasure; none . . . too repulsive for them to attend with special pleasure, and speak words of cheer and comfort, that made the patients feel like they were at home and under a sister’s care. One by one the loveliest and best fell, till all went down save one – Sister Laurentia. She stood like a monument of womanly graces, brightening us all by her brilliant eyes and cheerful talk. Finally this good woman followed the rest, and now she sleeps by the side of five others in our cemetery. In all this revel of disease and death it has been our pleasure to witness some of the grandest examples of manly and womanly virtue I have ever expected to see. * * *
W. J. L. Holland
October 25th LETTER from Sr. Scholastica to Sr. Martha.
* * * Today Col. Holland was buried!! Funeral notices were sent around and Mr. Brittennum, the one who is taking Col. Holland’s place, sent a carriage for us. Four of us went, I among them. ‘Tis the first time I have been away from home since July. My heart was heavy to see such desolation. Nearly every house closed, and so many inmates gone forever!…. In the cemetery, I saw dear Father Oberti’s grave, with a little impromptu wooden cross Father Lamy put there when he buried him. Some distance from there they laid the last remains of our good and much esteemed friend, Col. Holland. Father Lamy will explain to you why his death was particularly a sad one.
Quite near his grave are the six little mounds of our loved ones. Oh! they look so bare and desolate. * * * One of the Committeemen, a gentleman from New Orleans, came to the carriage to bid us goodbye and said: "Well Sisters, you have lost a good friend, but you must remember you have many more." And indeed they have all been as kind to us as it is possible for them to be.
I think the fever is pretty well over here. There are several cases on hand, but mostly convalescents. A few who took it since the frost will probably die. One Catholic woman will die today. Father Lamy prepared her before he left..
1Surname spelled Oberto on Baptismal Certificate
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