End of an age

Readings for the feast day of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr of Carthage

and James Chisholm, Priest,

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 38:9–17

2 Corinthians 1:3–11

Matthew 24:1–8

Psalm 116:5–9

Today’s readings speak of affliction, disease, and “the end of the age.” In our modern era with a better understanding of infectious disease and antibiotics, plagues don’t really register for us unless we’ve traveled to a developing country. For most of us, the concept of plague is simply a great backdrop for sci-fi novels and movies. But for the residents of Portsmouth VA and surrounding towns, the late summer and fall of 1855 must have certainly looked like the end of the age, as a yellow fever epidemic swept through the area.

In 1855, people didn’t really understand the cause of yellow fever as a mosquito-borne. They did understand, though, that the disease was often spread from ships arriving from the Caribbean, and often started in marshy areas with heavy, stale air. So it was no surprise that port authorities quizzed the captain of the Benjamin Franklin about the death of two crew members. The captain told them that a coal heaver had died of a heart attack and another had died of exhaustion. He sort of left out the part about burying someone at sea in a rolled up mattress, and some of the crew jumping ship, figuring the risk of drowning was a reasonable one. Around that same time, a man would wash ashore in a coal heaver’s uniform. His hands were yellow as lemons.

By the beginning of August, 1855, about 60 people had succumbed to yellow fever. By the beginning of September, the fatality count had risen to 910. Over 2700 people would die by the time the scourge subsided in November, 1855.

To James Chisholm, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Portsmouth must certainly have looked like anything he could have imagined what the Black Death was like. Bodies piled up and were buried in mass graves, pits with layers of quick lime sandwiching bodies. Dogs roamed the streets in packs. Tenements were evicted of all residents, with infected, dispossessed people wandering the streets, and piles of bedding being burned in the street. Sometimes it caught rows of houses ablaze. Breast-feeding children were pulled from the bosom of their mothers and whisked away to other towns. The stench of fire and brimstone mixed with the stench of the dead and layers of flies. Physicians fled the city–but it was probably just as well. The treatment of the day was to purge people with cathartics containing mercury and lead. If the yellow fever didn’t kill a person, the treatment probably would have.

The Rev. Chisholm sent his family away early in the epidemic but felt called to stay behind. He did not merely attend the sick and dying as clergy, but he also procured meager food for them, and even dug graves himself for some of the victims. Unfortunately, just as the plague subsided, he succumbed to yellow fever himself.

Perhaps the greatest untold story, though, was the amazing generosity of residents who gave anything of value–including the gold wedding bands from their fingers–to help the suffering victims. A slave in Washington County, VA gave 10 cents–all he had–and the note that came with the dime conveyed the hope that this meager contribution could help one or more of the many orphans of the plague.

In this story, although the Rev. Chishom becomes the focal point in our feast calendar, he is merely an icon through which we can see generosity in the face of fear. His story calls each of us to explore the question, “What am I doing to help the areas of the world that are still endemic to mosquito-borne disease?”

Of course, we traditionally think of malaria as the classic mosquito-borne disease, but we forget that mosquito nets prevent a variety of diseases, with malaria being the most prevalent. A very modest donation through Episcopal Relief and Development, through their partner Nets for Life, can buy a mosquito net for $12.00 for someone in an endemic area. That $12.00 can save lives, one by one, and reduce infant mortality.

How many mosquito nets can you afford today to honor a fallen hero in the life of our church?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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