We are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government officials have ordered people to stay at home, schools have been cancelled, millions of people have lost their jobs and wearing face masks in public is the new normal. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have died from the virus. This feels new and unfamiliar, but this is not the first time the world has experienced a pandemic.
The deadliest pandemic in human history was the 1918 “Spanish flu.” In just 15 months, it infected an estimated one-third of the world’s population and killed between 50 to 100 million people. The 1918 strain of influenza was unusual for several reasons: it was highly contagious, it was particularly deadly for otherwise healthy adults in their 20s and 30s and many victims developed pneumonia and heliotrope cyanosis (a condition where the lungs fill with thick blackish liquid).
Doctors and scientists did not know what caused the illness and did not know how to treat it. Antivirals and antibiotics did not exist in 1918, so treatment was limited to home remedies and public health measures such as quarantines and the closure of public venues like schools and churches. In addition, many doctors and nurses were working in Europe as part of the war effort, causing shortages of needed medical personnel.
Influenza hit the United States hardest in September, October and November of 1918. In October alone, more than 100,000 Americans died from the flu and secondary infections, like pneumonia. In fact, the disease was so severe that the average life expectancy in the United States fell by almost 12 years.
The SSND and the “Spanish Flu”
In 1918, there were approximately 4,236 School Sisters of Notre Dame (professed sisters and novices) living in the United States and Canada. The sisters were affected by and experienced the pandemic in much the same way as the rest of the world – they worried about loved ones, they nursed the sick and they mourned their dead.
Sisters at each mission location were required to write chronicles, or an annual account of major events. The chronicles provide an interesting view into this period in history by describing how the sisters experienced the pandemic. The following are a series of stories or chronicle entries that describe the SSND experience of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Click on the location to learn more.
In 1918, a School Sister of Notre Dame, working at St. Peter’s School in Philadelphia, sat down and wrote about the “Spanish flu” pandemic that devastated the city. “During October of this year  a general epidemic invaded our land and our city of Philadelphia where thousands died from the influenza. The hospitals could hardly accommodate all the sick. In this general calamity many people and especially the officials of the city government turned to the Most Rev. Archbishop for help…Feeling for the poor forsaken patients he turned to the teaching Orders of the city. As the schools were closed because of the epidemic, would the Sisters volunteer to tend the sick?”
Philadelphia was devasted by the influenza pandemic. The disease first arrived at Philadelphia’s Naval Yard on September 19, 1918. Four weeks later there were 47,000 cases with approximately 12,000 deaths. Over the course of six months, nearly half a million people in a city of two million, had contracted influenza and 16,000 died.
The problem was made worse by the fact that the city suffered from a shortage of medical personnel; more than a quarter of the city’s doctors and nurses were working for the war effort. Because of this shortage, city officials reached out to religious organizations, civic associations and the city’s medical and nursing schools looking for volunteers.
Eight sisters from St. Boniface and four sisters from St. Peter went to work in city hospitals. The chronicle from St. Peter describes the harrowing scene that welcomed the sisters.
“On Friday evening, Oct. 11, they went to the City Hospital on 18th and Cherry Sts. The first thing they saw was the body of a man who had just died. Another one sat next to the bed waiting for the bed to be made up for him.
When we reached our place of work we found the body of a woman who a few minutes before had died in the presence of our Sisters from St. Boniface.
In this room were also 6 other patients. A very ill Lutheran woman attracted the attention of Sister Dolorosa [Lingner], and soon she noticed that the end was near. She talked to her about accepting the will of God in case He wanted to call her home, and she was astonished to hear that she wanted to die instead of becoming well again. Then the Sister prepared the patient for death by acts of contrition and acceptance of the will of God, etc. The patient became calm and Sister noticed that the breathing had stopped. Her soul had gone to God. Opposite her lay a small boy. The poor boy cried unceasingly in spite of all possible attention from the doctors. By 4 a.m., the little sufferer, too, had gone to God.
So 3 bodies were here in one night from this one room. Also, in the other wards, similar scenes occurred. At 8 o’clock in the morning, our time of duty came to an end. We went back to our convent.
On the next evening the beds of the deceased had been filled with new patients. Although many were very ill, yet we did not have any one die this evening, what gave us new courage. However, in some other part of the hospital, some became victims of the epidemic. The Sisters tried very hard to alleviate the sufferings of the patients.”
On the third night, Sr. Dolorosa started to feel unwell, “but courageously she worked till the end of her duty time.” She had contracted influenza and pneumonia, which “brought her near death.” According to the chronicle, she was resigned to death and was anointed, but her strength increased and by November 1, she was able to get out of bed.
Meanwhile at St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Tacony, the sisters were too busy nursing sick children to work at city hospitals. On October 5 and 6, several children got sick with the flu and within a week 78 children were sick. On October 11, Sr. Michaela Mueller, who had been nursing the sick girls, came down with influenza. According to the chronicle, the sisters “could get no doctor for they, the doctors, were already overworked. Dr. Enoch, our house doctor, had fallen seriously ill from over-exertion.”
The superior reached out to the president of the orphanage asking him to find a doctor. One arrived on October 12 and reported that the children all received good care, “even without a doctor.” Despite all their efforts, things continued to deteriorate. Sr. Michaela was in critical condition, Sisters Eugenia Schmidt, Justa Boyle, Petronia Droesch and Polycarp Schreckenhoefer also got sick and the number of children sick with the flu rose to 120.
On October 18, their doctor came down with the flu and they were “forced to call in” another doctor because they were afraid that one of the girls was going to choke to death. The doctor did what he could to save her, but she passed away, surrounded by her mother, her aunt and several sisters.
Despite the large number of deaths in Philadelphia, the SSND only lost one sister to the pandemic. Sr. Hortense Gerstner, a teacher at St. Boniface, “was one of the first to offer her services as nurse [in a city hospital],” but she was not allowed to work in the hospitals because she suffered from heart trouble. Instead, she nursed the sisters at St. Boniface who contracted the disease. On October 16, Sr. Hortense came down with the flu and five days later died from pneumonia. She was 40 years old.
By early November, the number of people contracting influenza had decreased sharply and the city was allowed to reopen. A sister at St. Peter wrote the following: “On Nov. 4, the schools re-opened, also the services in church which had been stopped for a whole month for the first time in the history of the country. Everything breathed again. The announcement of the peace [WWI armistice] crowned the work and general jubilation prevailed in the land. Christmas this year really became a peace celebration…”
November 11 “All of Fort Wayne is rejoicing because of the Armistice. During the Flu epidemic no public entertainments could be held nor any public gatherings and if Holy Mass was attended in church all had to wear masks. We all wore them and we must have looked funny.”
December 30 “We received notice that we may open school again on the second of January after having been free since December 16. Before that we had 5 weeks in October and November. Plenty of free time this year. How will we ever catch up with our lessons!”
December 5 “Sister M. Wenceslaus [Panka, age 22] was the third victim of the dreadful ‘Flu.’ Having contracted pneumonia with it, she was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital Dec. 10th, where she died Dec. 13th at 1:45 A.M.”
December 16 “Monday, about 1 P.M. her funeral was conducted from the Peacock and Son Undertaking Parlors and thence to Elm Grove. On account of the contagion of the disease, these precautions had to be taken. Mrs. Panka, her mother, and Anna, her sister from Prairie du Chien, attended the funeral.”
Note: In 1918, it was common for a deceased person’s wake to be held at home, or in the case of a SSND who died in Milwaukee – the Milwaukee Motherhouse. However, during the pandemic, the Milwaukee Health Commissioner banned public funerals. Churches were also closed, but funerals could be held only with immediate family in attendance.
“At the beginning of this month [October] the terrible epidemic, the Flu broke out. The schools were closed from the 4th inst. Until Oct. 31st. During this time two Sisters had a slight attack from which they recovered.
Sr. Leon [Walter] was taken seriously ill on Oct. 11th and on account of scarcity of physicians had to apply to the Naval Acadamy [sic] whence we were fortunate to get the best of doctors. As a rule the doctors from the academy do not attend outside patients unless they are employed there. However we were an exception. On his first visit Dr. Spear pronounced Sr. Leon’s case a very critical one, as her condition developed into double pneumonia. On the night of Oct. 13th Sr. Leon received Extreme Unction, and on the following morning Holy Viaticum, as vomiting could not be checked the evening before. Holy Mass was celebrated during the entire time that school was closed. On the 20th of the same month Sr. Viviana [Tuohey] took sick and pneumonia developed but in a milder case. Both Sisters were able to receive holy Communion during their entire illness without any interruption.
Nurses could not be had and on Oct. 14th Rev. Mother Agnes [Feldhaus] accompanied by Sr. Materna [Gales] paid us a visited and secured a nurse for the two patients. Sr. Majola [Meyer] came on the 15th with the two Sisters, Srs. Jovia [difficult to read name, believe it is Jovita Mayer] and Meltha [Voit] who had come to stay for a time on account of poor health.
Dr. Spear, although a protestant, expressed his delight in visiting the sick and our dear convent home. Daily did he look forward with pleasure to the hour of his visit here. He supplied the sick with medicines and other stimulents [sic] gratis as also his service. He came not less than 37 times when he was called away to a foreign country, China…
Nov. 23 Sr. Majola left after having done all that a faithful and conscientious nurse could have done. Sr. Majola spared no pains nor energy in order to save the patients for the welfare of the order. May God reward her.
“October 9 – The City Council gave orders to close the schools, to avoid the spread of the much-feared influenza which had broken out over the entire country. Our town, however, had not had any case of it; still, as the City Council declared prudence to be advisable, they had come to the decision.
The Sisters assembled in the chapel imploring the Heavens. Each Sister in turn held an hour of adoration, so that an almost constant stream of prayer ascended to God’s Throne. God was evidently pleased and heard our prayers, for, from that particular date until November 16, there was not a single death in all the town; indeed, not even a call at the Rectory for a priest to give the Last Sacraments. All Holy Masses were said in private, and from the third to the fifteenth of November, behind locked doors. The attendance in the primary classes was very low as the influenza had now also attacked our children.”
“Then came the dreaded ‘flu’ with its tremendous consequences for the Sisters and the children. Two of the Sisters were taken down and since 50% of the children were sick school was closed for two weeks. For a period of three weeks it seemed that the disease had subsided when it broke out anew with sad results for the Community.
On November 22nd the 2nd day of the 40 hrs. devotion Sister Clarella [Porter, age 26] came home after her prayer hour complaining of a slight pain in the chest. The next day she was taken to the hospital and until Nov. 28th her condition was not at all alarming; but from then on her temperature rose and already on the next day pneumonia had developed. In the evening of Nov. 29th she asked for the Sacraments; at the same time she made known the fact that she would die, since she had offered her life for her father’s conversion. A few days and it was shown to use that the Almighty had accepted the offering of that young and sweet life.
From then until Dec. 3rd her condition grew steadily worse with only a few interruptions of the intense fever.
On Dec. 5th at 8:30 A.M. she breathed her last in the presence of the Rev. Assistant, the Sisters of her own Community and some of those of the Hospital and her own dear father and mother who were at her bedside several days before off and on as her condition permitted.
On the 5th the funeral services were held and the parish showed every mark of sympathy to the Community for the loss it had encountered. The Rev. Pastor addressed the relatives and Sisters in a touching manner. After the Requiem all those present formed in procession to the hospital yards where the Libera was sung and then the precious remains were taken to St. Boniface Cemetery in North Chicago.
The dear Sisters is constantly remembered by the parishioners who are not tiring of offering stipends for the repose of her soul. R.I.P.
On the following day two more of the Sisters came down with the dread disease but recovered after a week of illness.”
In 1918, the pastor convinced Mother Stanislaus Kostka [Schilling] to send sisters to Ponchatoula to teach catechism classes to local citizens. Sr. Beata Lingemann arrived mid-week and quickly learned that she was expected to open the parish school the following Monday. Things went downhill from there.
“October 7th, the school was opened; on the 6th, all schools were ordered closed on account of the influenza. [Note: this is how the dates were recorded in the chronicle.]
November 25, the school reopened, but only thirteen pupils came, four from the First Grade, four from the Second, two for the Third, two for the Fourth, and one for the Seventh Grade. The Seventh Grader returned to the Public School the following day saying, he did not want to be the only big boy in school. The next day, a boy came for the Second Grade, thus keeping the enrollment, thirteen, until December 4th when another boy entered.
December 13th, school was closed again on account of the flu and reopened December 30th. The number of pupils increased, until the end of the year there were sixty three.”
Most chronicle entries about the pandemic were written after things had returned to normal. The sister who wrote the chronicle at Immaculate Conception Academy in Belleville, however, appears to have written it in real time. She recorded events as they were happening, which provides an interesting glimpse into the fear and uncertainty that hung over everyone. She wrote:
“Dec. 3 I think Sister Ida [Thessing] has the Flu. Will the dread plague enter our house?
4 Sister Raymunda’s [Schulte, age 33] class closed this morning. She took to her bed at once feeling sick. Influenza??
5 Sister Ansberta [Bauer, age 32] and Sister Margarita [Bettels] are too sick to teach.
7 Flu raging. Nearly all the boarders ill with fever…Sister Raymunda and Sister Ansberta have developed pneumonia; they received the last Sacraments.
8 Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Thirty boarders and eleven Sisters down with the Flu. Our dear little Sister Raymunda passed away at 11 o’clock p.m. Funeral from Chapel, after a Requiem Mass by Rev. Father Geo. Lohmann, to Green Mt. Cemetery.
10 Poor Sister Andrea [Kochner, age 34] has pneumonia. The last Sacraments were administered.
12 Our good Sister passed away peacefully. Was laid away on Green Mount December 14.
15 This morning our loved Sister Ansberta also went to her Maker. Funeral services were conducted in the Chapel by Rev. Geo. Lohmann.”
“By the first of October, 817 pupils were in daily attendance. During the first week, alarming reports of an outbreak of influenza in the city had caused us to start a crusade of prayer that it might not become epidemic. But the Lord of life and death mercifully grants what is best for us in ways that are often mysterious as well as chastening.
The epidemic came, and the old adage ‘Forewarned is forearmed’ proved its efficacy in this instance. Remember its sad lessons when yellow fever invaded its precincts in the past, the civil authorities lost no time in using the necessary precautions to save the city from the ravages of the new and perhaps more baffling contagion.
October 9th The pupils came to school as usual, assisted at Mass, and were dismissed ‘until further notice’ by order of the Mayor of the city and the Governor of the state. With regret, we parted with our pupils, knowing that an enforced suspension of studies would entail greater hardship on both teachers and pupils before the close of school the following June. It was, however, a blessing in disguise for some of the teachers. Sisters Kenelma [Barnes] and Angella [Coff] were convalescent and could now take time to regain strength. Sister Maurice [Theroux] was taken to the Hotel Dieu the same day and was operated on by Dr. Nix on the 10th, obviating the necessity of precuring a substitute for her class.”
“Oct 11 Porto Rico is visited by a severe earthquake at 10:30 a.m. After a nerve-racking experience in the class rooms for three or four minutes, the children are dismissed in good order. On October 24, at midnight another shock drives everybody in terror to the streets. Slight shocks are felt for a whole month. School is closed for seven days. The people are greatly excited – hold Rogativas and march around the streets with lighted candles, statues and pictures of the saints but there is not notable increase in the number of confessions and communions. The western coast of the island suffers most. Mayaguez and Aguadilla are completely restored [possible she meant destroyed]. The Redemptorist Fathers at the former place lost heavily. The church, all the school buildings and the convent are so badly damaged that they cannot be used. The rectory remains intact and is used as hospital and refuge for all the religious orders of the city. The escape of the Sisters with their children from the falling buildings, seems miraculous.
Spanish Influenza is raging on the island, but Puerta de Tierra escapes with comparatively few cases. All churches and schools are closed for two weeks.
From Baltimore comes the sad news of the death of Sr. Mary Candelaria Quinones [novice, age 27], one of the first two Porto Rican girls to be received into our order. R.I.P.”
“To-day we closed school for an indefinite time on account of a contagion known as the Spanish Influenza, which was raging in the District. By orders of the Government, no indoor services were to be held on Sunday, therefore, the first Mass, at 7 o’clock, was said on the back porch of our convent. Quite a few people attended this Mass. It rained during this Mass, so the other Masses were said in the church. During the entire month, we had Mass in our chapel. High Mass on the week-days, no one was allowed to attend except the sisters.
Oct. 17 Having obtained permission from Rev. Mother Agnes [Feldhaus], three sisters, Sr. M. Hubertina [Zinkland], Sr. M. Luke [Knauf] and Sr. M. Flavia [Helfrich], went to the Influenza Hospital to aid in nursing the sick. This volunteer work was requested by Rev. Father Fenlon, a member of the Board of the Catholic War Dept.
After assisting the nurses in the sick rooms for three days, Sr. M. Hubertina became ill and had to be sent home.
Oct. 27 Sister M. Luke and Sister M. Flavia returned home. Sr. Luke, to take a little rest, and Sr. M. Flavia, to nurse the sick Sister.
Oct. 28 Sister Luke went back to the hospital to assist in the Diet kitchen where she and Sr. Flavia were busy for ten days. The churches were still under the ban and remained closed until October 31.
Nov. 3 School reopened. All the pupils returned. Quite a few of them had recovered from the influenza.”