Each year on September 9, those in the Episcopal Church celebrate the legacy of Sisters Constance, Thecla, Frances, Hughetta, and Ruth on the anniversary of the death of Sister Constance. These nuns came to Memphis in 1873 to take the helm of St. Mary’s and stayed in Memphis during the yellow fever epidemic to care for the sick and the orphaned while most people fled. Assistant Chaplain Mary Henry Thompson shared a message with our students in preparation for this day of remembrance.
I have a friend who is terrified of nuns. Terrified. The mere mention of a nun causes her to hide her face, she might squeal, and she might leave the room. I have been sitting next to her while she was reading a book about upstanding Christian women and watched her rip a picture of a nun out of the book and throw it away. I used to think this was funny until I realized her fear came about because of a haunted house at the St. Mary’s Halloween Bazaar.
Other folks I have known who were terrified of nuns were scared because they grew up in schools taught by nuns who were perhaps a bit too forthcoming with corporal punishment…meaning, their knuckles got slapped with a ruler a few too many times. But honestly, I never thought much about nuns until I came to work at St. Mary’s.
Constance, Thecla, Hughetta, Francis, and Ruth were not names burned into my psyche upon my arrival into this community, back when the seniors were 1st graders. Now I murmur prayers of thanksgiving for them every day. When COVID hit in 2020 I asked them for help. Like, I literally went for a walk in the woods ruminating on the bravery, perseverance, and faith of these martyrs who were there to care for orphans and start teaching at a school but found themselves working together to nurse what was left of the city of Memphis. There is nothing scary about these young sisters in Christ unless you are scared of superheroes.
The gospel reading today is one that used to send my brain into a wacky and painful exercise of thought gymnastics. But life and experience have made its meaning clearer and clearer.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say - ‘Father save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
God does not call us to run away from things that are terrifying, unless, of course, the right choice is to run away and is the braver choice. God calls us to live our lives out loud and to make choices coming from a place of love rather than a place of fear. Choose love, thank God, and glorify God for being there in that moment of need. We don’t need saving, the Gospels tell us that happened on a very sad and confusing three days nearly 2000 years ago.
In October of 1873, a yellow fever epidemic hit our city. In one month half of the population of Memphis ran away, leaving about 20,000 people. Of those 20,000, a quarter of them caught yellow fever and 2,000 of them died. The sisters started each morning at 6 a.m. with a eucharist together, a time to glorify God together and to remind themselves to lead with love. From there they fanned out to care for the sick, in November, a month later, the epidemic calmed down and the sisters remained to care for those who were recuperating.
In 1874, the sisters got to start our beloved school, and after four years of teaching Constance and Thecla got to go back to New York for some rest and retreat. They were two weeks into their break when they found out the yellow fever was back in Memphis with a vengeance, so they headed back with a stop to gather supplies. They arrived back here to take on the herculean task of tending to the sick on August 20, 1878, and a month later Sister Hughetta was the only one left.
Twelve years ago I began to learn more about these women and their strength, to look for ways to emulate and uphold their memory. To learn from their faith in action. So many days in these last few years I have found myself muttering, “What would Constance do?” And on the days that I have that thought and lead with love in order to glorify God’s name, my choices are always better than being left to my own devices.
When Mrs. Robinson calls and says, “Where are you? We need you.” I show up. There were days when that meant I needed to help celebrate someone’s birthday. But there have been as many of those calls that meant I might find myself sitting on the floor of the hallway with any number of you, holding space for your tender and broken heart while you ask unanswerable questions and all I can remember to do is thank God for bringing me to you in that moment. And I would like to think it is my regular chats with Constance early in the morning that allow me that privilege.
Constance and her friends lived their lives for God and cared for some of the most vulnerable in God’s creation. They regularly ran into the “burning house” to care for the sick, they did not run away. They knew that their lives were meant to be lived, and they did that gracefully until they lost their lives - which is why we honor their memories today by doing something they did every day. They shared the eucharist together every morning to give them the strength to carry on and to do God’s work in the world - just as we are doing this morning.
So, to my friend who is scared of nuns, remember Constance, Hughetta, Thecla, Francis, and Ruth. Remember that you are walking in their footsteps every day. Remember that their actions and faith can guide you to make good choices and care for others. They lived their lives out loud so that we could remember them for so much good and love all these years later. And they did it all with God’s help. I leave you today with Constance’s last words, which are inscribed on the altar at St. Mary’s Cathedral, “Alleluia! Hosanna!” Amen.