A century ago, Minnesota Catholics also kept the faith during a pandemic

| Susan Klemond | April 4, 2020 | 0 Comments

Catholics unable to attend Mass and church gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic can look back 100 years to when another virus made life challenging in what was then known only as the Archdiocese of St. Paul.

As the fall 1918 outbreak of the Spanish Flu in Minnesota killed almost 2,000 Twin Cities residents during what were also the final months of World War I, the archdiocese was also without a bishop.

Archbishop John Ireland died Sept. 25, 1918, just two days before the first case of the influenza virus was identified in the Twin Cities. He was an important leader in the Church in America, and his death was a significant event both in Minnesota and abroad. In the months that followed until early 1919, when the virus finally subsided, thousands locally became ill or died from the Spanish Flu. The pandemic killed more than 50 million worldwide between 1918 and 1919.

The Spanish Flu and COVID-19 are different in many ways. Still, Catholics today who are livestreaming Sunday Mass as they follow stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus may be interested to learn how their predecessors in the archdiocese kept their faith while avoiding their own deadly virus.

The Spanish Flu was probably misnamed. While the virus’ origin is unknown, Spain, as a neutral country in the war, was the first to publicly report an outbreak. It may have originated elsewhere because war propaganda allowed only positive news from the countries involved, according to “Lessons Learned from the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota,” at researchgate.net.

Some of the influenza symptoms resembled those of COVID-19: cough, exhaustion, fever and devastating lung damage that resulted in pneumonia. But influenza suffers also could contract cyanosis, a hemorrhaging caused by lung damage that turned an infected person’s skin purple or gray. Signs of the virus appeared quickly, and an influenza victim could be healthy in the morning and near death by evening, according to “Influenza Epidemic in Minnesota, 1918” at mnopedia.org.

Medical experts knew little about the illness and erroneously believed it was caused by bacteria. At least two different vaccines developed proved ineffective, because neither contained the influenza virus, according to researchgate.net.

Twin Cities hospitals were not able to handle all the influenza patients. Minneapolis’s City Hospital and St. Paul’s St. John’s Hospital were solely devoted to treating influenza patients. Non-influenza patients were transferred to other area hospitals. This inadequacy was not entirely due to the lack of beds and supplies; there simply were not enough healthy nurses. At City Hospital, Superintendent Dr. Harry Britton reported that the hospital was caring for about 150 cases and had about 70 on the waiting list. It had beds for those who were waiting, but not enough nurses.

As the number of cases increased, the Minneapolis health commissioner favored closing public places to reduce the virus’ spread, while the St. Paul commissioner believed isolating those infected was the most effective, according to researchgate.net.

On Oct. 12, 1918, Minneapolis enacted a ban on all unnecessary public meetings, and two days later the health department ordered all schools, churches, theaters, movie houses, dance halls, and pool and billiard halls closed indefinitely. St. Paul didn’t institute a ban on gatherings until Nov 9.

The war complicated efforts to stop the pandemic. A third of the medical workers were supporting the war effort. Many more become ill treating the influenza patients, according to mnopedia.org.

While there were orders from both cities to limit the size of gatherings, events to support the troops and the war effort continued, possibly furthering spread of the virus. Church services were suspended, yet Red Cross workers gathered in crowded conditions in the same churches, according to researchgate.net.

Guiding the archdiocese at this time was Father James C. Byrne, formerly the vicar general, who served as archdiocesan administrator through much of the pandemic, according to the Catholic Bulletin (predecessor to The Catholic Spirit). The new archbishop, Austin Dowling, wasn’t appointed until March 1919.

With the ban on public gatherings, public funerals were not permitted, said Allison Spies, archdiocesan archives program manager. At least one priest, Father Charles Youngworth, died while serving influenza patients.

The Catholic Bulletin probably didn’t run extensive coverage of the pandemic because more attention was on the war, Spies said, adding that media often described the pandemic using war or battle terms.

Gathering size limits were vague. An Oct. 23 story in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune stated: “Closing of schools, churches and theaters has been left to the discretion of municipal authorities but large, indiscriminate assemblages have been forbidden.”

Parishes closed for all or part of the ban periods in both cities and some events were postponed, but confirmation services continued in both cities.

In an Oct. 12, 1918, article in the Washington D.C. Evening Star, pastors nationwide urged people of faith to hold prayer services at home rather than going to church because of the pandemic.

An Oct. 19 Catholic Bulletin announcement from St. Clement in Minneapolis stated: “Owing to the ban on Sunday gatherings in Minneapolis, due to the influenza epidemic, Confirmation was administered in this church Saturday evening.” Hours before the Minneapolis ban took effect, 150 were confirmed at the parish.

In the Catholic Bulletin’s Oct. 26 issue, St. Lawrence in Minneapolis announced its three-week parish mission would start Sunday, Nov. 3 — during the ban. The parish appears to facilitate social distancing: “Because of the restrictions on the opening of the churches of Minneapolis last Sunday much extra space was required to accommodate the congregations. Accordingly, Mass was celebrated at half past eight o’clock in the University armory. Rev. Jos. T. Barron of St. Paul Seminary also said Mass in the Exposition building, where there were 2,600 men in uniform ….”

Parish bazaars and other events were postponed. St. Bridget in Minneapolis wrote in the Nov. 16 The Catholic Bulletin about a rescheduled event date: “It is hoped that before that time all danger from the disease will be passed.”

Both cities lifted their bans on Nov. 15 as the number of infections declined. A largely unenforced state ban stayed in effect until Dec. 14, according to influenzaarchive.org.

Just before this, on Nov. 11, the Armistice ending the war was signed. The lifting of the bans may have been tied to organization of victory parades, Spies said.

A third smaller Spanish Flu outbreak occurred in the winter, extending into early 1919. By then, the war was finally over, and Catholics in the archdiocese it seemed were ready to leave the influenza behind and return to their parishes and normal lives.

Familiar (and not so familiar) instructions for dealing with a virus

Some of the precautions that health leaders gave the public during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic resemble those given today — but not all.

Social distancing was promoted, especially on streetcars and elevators, along with using handkerchiefs to cover sneezes and coughs, getting fresh air and contacting a doctor if ill.

Public health officials advised wearing gauze masks to avoid exposure to cough and sneeze droplets, while a Roseau County doctor suggested eating squirrel soup, according to “Influenza Epidemic in Minnesota, 1918,” at mnopedia.org.

Another doctor advising the Red Cross gave these rules in the Catholic Bulletin:

  1. All colds, however slight, should be treated as possible attacks of influenza. Patients affected by colds should stay at home and sterilize discharge from the nose and throat.
  2. Avoid feeding or spreading of the disease.
  3. Avoid crowds.
  4. Regulate bodily functions and keep them so.
  5. Avoid the breath or expelled secretions from people suffering from colds.
  6. Wash out the nose and throat two or three times daily by a nasal spray and by gargle with “normal salt solution” (a teaspoonful salt to one glass of eight ounces clean water).
  7. All those attending patients with influenza should wear masks.
  8. Clothing should be warm and dry. Food simple and easily digested. Drink water freely.

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