Influenza Epidemic

This is my first entry in our community’s blog. I have an interest in our community’s history and in the recent past have been completing research on various aspects of it. In doing so, I have become acquainted with many valiant women who went before us. It is some of their stories that I will share in my blog entries.
With the H1N1 flu season getting our full attention I began wondering about the 1917-1919 flu epidemic. I know there is a row of graves in our cemetery of sisters—many very young—who died from the flu. How did the providers in the 70-bed hospital in St. Cloud—built and staffed by our sisters—manage to care for all the sick? In our archives I found the memoirs of Sister Julitta Hope, one of the hospital sisters at the time. In it she relates how acute the situation was and how our sisters helped through the crisis.

She wrote:

“While the flu was raging in St. Cloud, it seemed that every family was involved and Sister Cunegund and I went to tend the sick from house to house….With the mothers and 5 or 6 children in bed, all needing care…we could not get very far. Word of the situation…got to Bishop Busch that something needed to be done. ..[I]t was decided to use [a diocesan building] for the care of the sick….We had only a few beds set up when the patients began to come….The schools had been closed, and so the Sisters came to help from almost every one our convents, and they helped until they, too, were taken with the flu….We had very few doctors and they, too, got sick. The undertakers got sick and there was no one to bury the dead. Often there were 3 or 4 bodies needing burial. We wrapped them in sheets dipped in formaldehyde, and put them in the coldest place [we had] until they could be buried. We did the best we knew how. [Expectant mothers] were in a dangerous condition. I had to do a caesarean myself.”

Valiant women indeed! I like to walk in our cemetery during November and visit the graves of Sisters dear to me. I found myself making a special pilgrimage to say thank you to those who died at the time of the epidemic. Surely some of them cared for the sick in the “overflow hospital” Sister Julitta described, and very likely succumbed to the flu themselves. It makes real Jesus’ teaching on how great a gift it is to give one’s life for others.
photo: Sister Julitta Hoppe (left) with Sister Glenore Riedner at St. Cloud Hospital