Episcopal Peace Fellowship National Executive Committee
Rev. James Chisholm
As we as a country continue to navigate our way through the World Pandemic of 2020, certain individuals stand out as heroes in a time of calamity, providing care and comfort to the afflicted, as well as performing continuing services for the public, such as postal workers, child care, emergency services to victims of natural disaster, grocery store stockers and deliverers, etc. We are all grateful for their service while putting themselves at risk.
The Rev. James Chisholm was one of these unsung heroes during a time of devastating Yellow Fever in Virginia in 1855. Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia combined lost approximately 3,000 residents, a third of their populations. Thousands had initially fled to New York area for safety (for them, their means of social distancing). The virus arrived by infected passengers on a ship. Rev. Chisholm, Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, died of the illness.
From Wikipedia sources, we learn that “…in February 1855, Rev. Chisholm’s wife died, leaving him to care for two young sons. When yellow fever struck Portsmouth and nearby Norfolk in the summer and one of his sons fell ill, Chisholm sent his boys to live with relatives, but returned to the city. Almost all other leading citizens, ranging from doctors to clergy, left, but Rev. Chisholm remained to assist those stricken by the epidemic, with not only pastoral care, but food, medical care and even digging graves. He worked closely with Rev. Francis Devlin of the city’s St. Paul’s Catholic Church to assist Irish immigrants who continued to live in “pestilential abodes”. As the disease abated in the fall, Chisholm had been so weakened by his efforts (and news that one of his sons had died) that he himself succumbed at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, becoming one of the 3,200 deaths in a city which had about 12,000 residents the previous winter.
About 20 people turned out for his funeral, conducted by a Baptist minister. Rev. Chisholm is buried in Portsmouth’s Cedar Grove cemetery. His memoirs of that epidemic, edited shortly after his death to emphasize the Christian values which prompted the somewhat delicate and retiring (if not bashful) cleric to exhibit fortitude through that epidemic, are available at various sources. Since 2010, the Episcopal Church has remembered Chisholm annually on its liturgical calendar on September 15.
Local Graveyard Marker Kristen Zeis-The Virginian-Pilot
From The Great Pestilence in Virginia, by William S Forrest (1856) “…Who, that knew the Rev. James Chisholm by sight, would have dreamed that that frail body of his held such a lofty spirit! Weak and delicate, with a degree of modesty that almost amounted to bashfulness, as shrinking and retiring as a young girl, thousands would have passed him in the crowd unconscious that they were in the presence of a ripe scholar and an able divine. His look a personification of meekness; and, to the superficial thinker, he would seem to have been one of those who would quietly have retreated to his solitude, far away from the noise and bustle of an excited community. But the disease came — Chisholm’s flock nearly all left — and he, too, was preparing to spend a portion of his summer in the mountains but stern duty said ‘ Stop.’ And then it was that this pale, delicate, frail, retiring man came forth to the struggle, and the great fond noble soul, which was, after all, the stature of the man, rose in its God-given strength, and he was here at the bedside of suffering, and there by the fresh-made grave; here pointing the sinner to the cross of Christ, and there carrying food and drink to the needy; now in the pulpit, seizing upon the circumstances of the visitation, to warn men to prepare for death, and then in the hospital whispering peace to the penitent and departing soul.”
Our struggles with the COVID-19 bring us to seek guidance and leadership from our leaders and solace from our religious and spiritual leaders. This has been true throughout the ages. Sometimes, the desire to rely on our faith for comfort…and for answers… can be problematic. Some look at the pandemic as a “divine missive” with varied interpretations, while some seek earthly relief and protection from the virus through religious rituals such as drinking cow urine or holy dirt from select mausoleums.
The need to follow the guidance of science has been fraught in the United States with confusion, mixed messages and lack of compliance. For example, traditional communal religious gatherings are not allowed, or only with restrictions. The wearing of masks for protection has acquired political overtones. And States and local communities all seem to have different requirements that seem to change frequently.
Blaming “others” for causing the onset of pandemics and plagues is common. The two outbreaks of the horrific Antonine Plague, or the Plague of Galen, devastated the Roman economy and war machine beginning in around 160CE to 180CE and then 251CE-266CE. Christians were persecuted for their reluctance to honor the gods, which Romans believed resulted in the rage of the gods who sent a disease to the population as punishment. A side-effect of the Antonine Plague, in fact, was the positive reception by the remaining people with the refreshing Christian tradition of actually assisting others in need of comfort or healing, as well as having a more positive perspective of life and death in challenging times, including the ultimate reward of Heaven for those who became Christians.
During the current pandemic, we too have witnessed the blaming of others for supposedly allowing our great nation to be a victimized by a pandemic hatched from abroad. Even populations below our southern border have been highlighted as a source of infections by some politicians.
The horrible 1918 Spanish Flu, that claimed up to 850,000 lives was far worse than COVID-19 is likely to be. But the population in major cities did wear masks in deference to the known science back then. It should be noted that the 4,000-strong San Francisco Anti Mask League, led by a maskless Mayor James Rolph, was active for a brief period until “science prevailed”.
Anti-Mask Row (Reddit) A Mask Slacker Warned in SF (Business Insider)
The Black Plague, the worst of the past plagues, raged in Eurasia and North Africa peaking from 1347-1351, killing worldwide upwards of 200 million souls, or 60% of the population. One of the heroines of this apocalyptic period was St. Catherine (Caterina) of Siena, known for frequenting hospitals with infected patients and offering her remarkable personal, loving touch.
Catherine of Siena
U.S. Catholic Magazine
Other noteworthy “Nothelfers” or “helpers in need” were referred to collectively as the Fourteen Holy Helpers. So important were these early devotees of care to sufferers that special indulgences were offered by Pope Nicholas with devotions given for Saints George, Blasé, Erasmus, Pantaleon, Vitus, Christopher, Denis, Cyriacus, Acacius, Eustace, Giles, Margaret, Barbara and Catherine (of Alexandria). Science had not provided a solution to the bubonic plague, so these 14 holy helpers stepped in to satisfy the public’s yearning for protection and peace.
The Black Plague-From the Toggenburg Bible-History Today
And of course, St. Sebastian’s rise in favor after the Roman Empire’s decline deserves mention. A soldier, he was moved to convert to Christianity having seen persons cured of the plague when pagan idols were spurned. Religious care was the prevailing practice then, and “plague saints” were adopted in various communities including Florence, Italy where St. Sebastian interceded to halt the plague. A church in his name was built to honor him in addition to the previously built holy altar that was thought to have brought an end to the plague in Florence. St. Sebastian’s likeness still provides solace to those in need of relief from various troubles and ailments.
And we must mention the Native Americans who suffered greatly from the arrival of the Europeans, bringing their domestication, religion and germs. It has been reported that colonial leaders actually used smallpox germs in blankets as a weapon against the unwitting indigenous population. Native Americans witnessed with fear the inexplicable shroud of disease coursing through their hunter/gatherer societies and through their unique religious belief system that had once provided support, causing tragic mass suicides and the abandonment of many infants. There seemed to be no cure, medically or spiritually, for the spread of disease after centuries of harmony with the natural world.
“Unparalleled in History of City” (Philadelphia-1918) read the headline in the Philadelphia newspaper. The Spanish flu had hit Philadelphia hard. All schools and churches were closed. Church offices became hospitals, and all priests, non-cloistered nuns (2,000) and St. Vincent DePaul members were enlisted. Twenty-three nuns were felled by the disease in the course of treating patients. “Their largely anonymous actions helped save the lives of many throughout the city…”.
We Wear Masks! (ABC) New York Times-1918
Some Final Notes
As Andrew Sullivan of New York Magazine writes, a plague is an effect of civilization not just a threat. With villages and cities comes concentrations of animals, domestic and otherwise, as well as people living in close quarters. Diseases and epidemics can and do thrive in such conditions. Plagues, when they occur, “reorder” things, and …suspend society in midair …. taking it out of its regular patterns and intimating new possible futures”. These “futures” may be heartening or frightening.
Rome staggered under the two successive epidemics of Smallpox (like) and Ebola (like), followed by huge volcanic eruptions in 536CE in Iceland that “rebooted” epidemics worldwide in this lengthy period of the Dark Ages, known by some as “the worst year to be alive”.
536CE-The Worst Year to Be Alive (cnn.com)
Crazy and fanatical behaviors became commonplace, with cultish sects and hatred of certain religions bubbling to the surface. Plagues were not uniters in many ways, but often divisive with virulent scapegoating and assigning of blame. Spirituality shifts began again, with a core of rebellious trends appearing, including the infancy of the Reformation. Defiance of the previous order was occurring. The cycle of rebuilding civilization was actually occurring again.
And, as Sullivan writes, agriculture, post Black Plague, actually evolved to benefit the poor (e.g., fewer mouths to feed), and industries like printing shifted to the new printing presses in lieu of expensive scribes. He notes his belief that the AIDS and Black Lives Matter movements are related to the past inclinations to experience life differently when under the stress of a pandemic with what he calls “disinhibiting feelings” that may give a sudden collective unity for people to “express themselves fearlessly in public, to reorder the whole”.
We shelter and serve within our communities and with our loved ones, and watch for signs of the reordering of the whole.
We give thanks to all persons who have freely and bravely given of their love and talents to ease the sufferings of those afflicted by disease, as did Rev. James Chisholm of Portsmouth Virginia during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1855, who we recognize in the Episcopal Church on September 15th.
“Merciful God, you called your priest James Chisholm to sacrifice his life while working amid great suffering and death: Help us, like him, to live by the faith we profess, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ our Lord; who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.” from: A Great Cloud of Witnesses