A History Mystery column about the 1918 influenza pandemic published in July 2014, pondered: “Imagine not being allowed to go to church in a time of troubles…”
Well…now we know.
Influenza arrived in Philadelphia in September 1918, aboard a Navy ship coming from Boston. It spread quickly in the Navy Yard, then at a military parade in Center City attended by 200,000 people, promoting sales of Liberty Bonds to fund the war effort – a parade at which our parish was particularly well represented due to the school’s very successful Bond drive.
All public and parochial schools in Philadelphia closed for three weeks afterwards, to try to stem the epidemic. Medical personnel were still overseas aiding in the war effort, so IHM teaching sisters volunteered as nurses, tirelessly tending bedsides of many races, ethnicities, and religions, especially in the MBS boundaries.
Police closed places of worship citywide from October 6 through October 26, 1918, with few exceptions. Our church was one of these: the October 5, 1918 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported that: “Placards have been posted within the confines of the Catholic parish of St. Francis de Sales, announcing that by permission of the Board of Health, masses will be celebrated tomorrow morning in front of St. Francis’ Church, 47th St. and Springfield Ave. at 7:30, 9:30 and 11 A.M.” The outdoor Mass on the front steps “did not meet with general approval,” however (curious phrasing!), and the practice ended after October 13. Catholics were exhorted to pray in their homes for a speedy end, both to the epidemic and to the war.
October 1918 was a rough month for SFDS. The parish Death Register recorded eight deaths in September; then jumped to 40 between October 6 and October 31, 1918. Fatalities tapered off again to five in November, nine in December, and a few more in January. In the end, parish losses from influenza probably totaled about 60 people; the names of the deceased are recorded in the parish ledger, but not all of the death certificates are available to confirm the cause.
Who were the victims? Geographically, most of the deaths in our parish occurred in the less-prosperous section south of Baltimore Avenue. Victims were married and single; many were in their 30s; a few were infants and children. Most had been born in Philadelphia, many to immigrant parents. The death certificates provide a snapshot of their employment: a stenographer; a policeman; a sheet metal worker; a number of housewives and several salesmen including a cigar salesman; a female Bolter at J.G. Brill’s trolley manufacturing co.; a telegraph operator; a young lady in the women’s Naval Reserve; several bartenders; a soldier; a watchman; and a motor inspector among others. Above Baltimore Avenue, victims included the Assistant Treasurer of Standard Steel Co. and the Treasurer of the Broad Street Theatre.
The epidemic slowed down considerably by November 11, when the First World War officially ended. Catholic sisters (who tended bedsides), Catholic seminarians (who dug graves), and clergy in Philadelphia were especially commended by the city for their heroic efforts during the crisis. Worldwide, more people died of influenza than died in World War I, and more people died of influenza in Philadelphia than anywhere else in the world – a dubious distinction for our fair city!
Rectory offices have been closed since March 13 and Masses are being celebrated privately. Find Morning Prayer livestreamed on the Matt Guckin Facebook page at 7 AM (Monday to Friday) and 9 AM (Saturday and Sunday); Night Prayer at 9 PM.
HOLY WEEK AND EASTER SERVICES TO BE CELEBRATED PRIVATELY. On March 25, 2020, The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship issued the Decree in Time of Covid 19 (II) stating that “Given that the date of Easter cannot be transferred, in the countries which have been struck by the disease and where restrictions around the assembly and movement of people have been imposed, Bishops and priests may celebrate the rites of Holy Week without the presence of the people and in a suitable place, avoiding concelebration and omitting the sign of peace. The faithful should be informed of the beginning times of the celebrations so that they can prayerfully unite themselves in their homes. Means of live (not recorded) telematic broadcasts can be of help….”
SFDS Holy Week 2020 Services, celebrated privately, will be available on Youtube and Facebook:
April 5 Palm Sunday Mass at 10:15 AM
Thursday April 9 Mass at 7:00 PM
Friday April 10 Passion at 3:00 PM
Sunday April 12 Easter Sunday Mass at 10:15 AM