A sickness and a silver crown: How Saint Louis University survived the cholera epidemic of 1849
.- In the basement of St. Francis Xavier College Church on the campus of Saint Louis University stands a statue of the Blessed Mother and the Child Jesus.
Cut from plain white stone, the statue stands smaller-than-life on a pedestal across from a small chapel. It bears some obvious signs of age: the fingers on the child’s hand, extended in blessing, have eroded away, and the corner of Mary’s lips displays a darkened blemish. It appears, on first sight, rather unremarkable.
Unremarkable, that is, until one learns its place in the history of the school.
“Today, I don’t get the impression that many know the story or know the history of the statue when they walk past it in the vestibule of the Lady Chapel at College Church,” Fr. David Suwalsky, S.J., head of the Department of Theological Studies at SLU, and a historian, told CNA.
A bronze plaque across from the chapel chronicles the statue’s story. The plaque explains the role the statue played for the university in a time of crisis — a crisis averted, some say, due to Our Lady’s intercession and the prayers of the community. A story of prayer amid pestilence, it is an episode of history worth recalling amid the spread of the coronavirus.
Epidemic in a growing city
In the 1840s, the city of St. Louis, originally a small French trading post along the Mississippi River, was booming. It had become the gateway to the expanding American West, with land to grab and gold to be dug. By 1849, inhabitants of the city numbered around 77,000.
Then came the cholera epidemic.
“The city was very fearful,” said Christopher Alan Gordon, Director of Library & Collections at the Missouri Historical Society, who wrote a book on the epidemic’s effect on St. Louis entitled Fire, Pestilence, and Death: St. Louis 1849.
The cholera spread of that year originated in Europe and made its way to the United States via trade and immigration. At the time, many new arrivals to America were making their way to St. Louis,to settle there or to continue westward.
The earliest deaths from the epidemic in St. Louis occurred in January, and the disease reached its peak from late April to mid-July.
“Once it began to take hold in spring, people began to flee the city,” Gordon said.
Even government officials took refuge in the surrounding countryside, forcing the mayor to appoint an emergency Committee of Public Health in June with near-total control over the city, to halt the spread of disease.
Such was the city’s desperation that they even took to banning vegetables and sauerkraut, which were erroneously thought to spread cholera through rotting. The city removed garbage and refuse, and citizens burned barrels of pitch and tar in hopes of cleansing the atmosphere of “miasma,” a Greek word for “bad air.”
Only later would germ theory allow medical scientists to discover that cholera spreads through bad water; at the time, St. Louis lacked proper sewage.
Some efforts, however, amounted to what would be recognized today as effective anti-contagion measures. Arrivals in the city were screened for symptoms, and a makeshift hospital was constructed on an island in the Mississippi River, dubbed “Quarantine Island.”
“Given what’s going on in the world” with the spread of coronavirus, Gordon said, “I think people should look back on these epidemics and realize that there are real lessons that were learned, and there was progress that came out of them that has really helped us in our daily lives today.”
Even as the city filled Quarantine Island, however, the disease continued to spread, and at the peak of the epidemic, 200 funerals a day were recorded.
“You read these accounts, particularly in May and June of 1849, where people talk about the streets becoming empty,” said Gordon.
“It was a scary time, it was a scary place to be.”
Saint Louis University & the silver crown
Documents preserved in the Jesuit Archives & Research Center in St. Louis, as well as the Saint Louis University Libraries Archives, provide a window into life at the school during the epidemic — and how the Madonna statue of St. Francis Xavier College Church factored into that period of Saint Louis University’s history.
In 1849, Saint Louis University, then an all-male institution, had a population of more than 200 student boarders, many of whom came from wealthy homes in the South and along the East Coast. There was also a population of “day-scholars” who travelled to the university from their own homes in St. Louis to attend the school each day. Just over 30 years old, the university was one of the larger educational institutions west of the Mississippi.
Whispers of the coming pestilence had reached St. Louis via newspaper before the disease claimed its first victims in January 1849. Preemptive fear gripped the city, including the university. An undated petition signed by 16 students sometime in the latter half of 1848, exclaims “Le Choléra!!!” and implores in French that students be allowed to smoke, claiming that “the smoke of tobacco is capable of repulsing this enemy.”
By May 1849, the situation had grown dire. A letter from Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J., then second-in-command of the local Jesuit province, records that in that month, prayers against the calamity were “said every evening in our churches and novenas said in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” Among these churches was St. Francis Xavier.
With students living so close together on a campus in the thick of the growing city and the epidemic pressing from all sides, anxieties mounted high at Saint Louis University.
Fearful for the school, the students’ Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary club was among the groups praying daily for safety from the epidemic at St. Francis Xavier. Sometime in May, at the behest of Fr. Isidore Boudreaux, S.J., the head of the Sodality, the group gathered the student body in the chapel.
Fr. De Smet records that there, in front of the statue that now rests outside the current church’s daily Mass chapel, the students gathered to ask Mary’s protection on the whole student body from the plague:
“Assembled in the chapel of the Sodality, which is specifically dedicated to Our Lady, with lips which gave utterance to the deepest feelings of their hearts, they implored her divine protection; on their knees, with filial confidence and affection, they besought Mary, their heavenly Mother, to shield them from the coming pestilence, and with a loving, childlike simplicity, they promised that if none of them, or of those living in the University, should fall victims to the cholera, they would place on her statue a silver crown, which would be to them a continual memorial of her love.”
The school also placed medals of the Immaculate Conception on the gates and doors of the school, a brief biography of Boudreaux located in the Jesuit Archives notes.
This promise to Mary “seemed to have dispelled all fear” among the students, Fr. Thomas Chambers, S.J., said in a letter dated October 1899, 50 years after the plague. He records that some students, when asked if they were worried about the epidemic, replied, “No! The cholera durst not enter those College walls. The Bl. Virgin keeps it off.”
Throughout the course of the epidemic, the Jesuits focused much of their ministry on serving the sick. “Our Fathers were night and day, for months together, among the dead and dying,” Fr. De Smet recorded in the months following the epidemic.
One in particular, Fr. Arnold Damen, was recognized by the city of St. Louis for his efforts against the contagion. Also assisting the sick around the clock from the university faculty was Dr. Moses Linton, a decorated professor at the medical school.
In June, students were sent home for fear of the illness, and the university closed until September. Commencement exercises were canceled. The year instead concluded with the annual dinner on the feast of John the Baptist.
“I assure you it was a happy thought to break up [the school term],” reads a letter dated June 9, 1849 from Boudreaux. “Most of the parents were on the point of recalling their sons.”
The official death toll for the city from cholera that year stands at 5,547. The actual number is almost certainly far higher due to the inexactitude of many records and the fact that many of the dead were buried outside the city proper. Many estimates, Gordon said, place the actual number between 7,000 and 8,000. Either way, it amounts to a sizable fraction of the 77,000 population in the city.
The contagion reached its height in St. Louis that July, with 2,211 deaths, and at the start of August, the Committee of Public Health declared that the emergency in the city had officially ended. That same month, only 54 died of the disease.
When Saint Louis University resumed session in September, the epidemic had well died off.
With students back at the school, they were all of them safe from the effects of cholera, and all priests remained in good health despite their constant ministry to the sick.
The epidemic that had claimed around a tenth of the population of the city and wreaked havoc across the world had not crept into campus walls. The student body remained whole, and none of the Jesuits had not fallen sick despite their vigorous ministry to the infirm.
The school took this as a sign of their vow to the Blessed Mother. On the evening of October 8 that year, the university gathered for a two-and-a-half hour ceremony to uphold their promise and crown the statue.
Fr. De Smet records that the church was decorated in evergreen garlands and flowers, white wreaths, and “numberless” lamps ranged in the shapes of “hearts, crowns, and crosses.” The ceremony included Benediction, hymns, and a talk “every way well suited to the occasion” by a Rev. Gleizal, whom he describes as “a most devoted servant of Mary.” Students carried lighted candles wrapped in small wreaths.
At the climax of the coronation ceremony, the crown was blessed and processed twice around the church, a scene De Smet described as “beautiful and imposing,” before the crowd sang the the Te Deum and, “[a]mid a most deathlike silence,” crowned the statue of the Mother to whom they attributed their survival.
The silver crown today
Today, the crown rests separate from the statue, occasionally trading homes between its current location at St. Francis Xavier and a museum on SLU’s campus. The students of the 1840s also dedicated a marble plaque in Latin that described the history of the statue and crown. That plaque today lies in storage, too heavy for the walls of the current chapel. A bronze version with a translation of the original marble display hangs beside the statue instead. The parish has moved location in the elapsing century and a half, and the statue, crown, and plaques are some of the few remains of the original church.
The SLU population of 1849 had several temporal factors working in its favor, Fr. Suwalsky noted.
“Poverty meant that families couldn’t afford doctors which meant that they were not subjected to the horror that was medicine in those days,” he said. “No dirty hands, instruments or wacky potions… Plus the students were male, young and healthy and therefore less susceptible to illness.” Suwalsky also noted that the university population also likely had access to better-quality water than did many poorer parts of the city.
“Still,” he said, “it is an amazing thing that a disease as virulent as cholera which took the lives of as many as 10% of St. Louis’ population didn’t reach into the university community. I am willing to call that a miracle.”
Of course, not all prayers are so explicitly answered.
“They were trusting that placing themselves under the protection of the Virgin would bring about a very positive thing,” Fr. Suwalsky said, “and I’m not sure that they had any sort of guarantee that they would emerge unscathed. But, they trusted that it was the right thing to do, and I think that’s all we can do. Trust that the Lord provides for us, and we will continue to believe that God’s help and grace is always present and available to us.”
The story of the Mary statue at St. Francis Xavier College Church bears relevance today in the face of another global epidemic, with the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“These things aren’t, sadly, unique” from a historical perspective, Fr. Suwalsky said. “We should understand that you do the right things and you keep working.” Today, in measures against COVID-19, SLU is one of a number of universities that has transitioned to online coursework for the remainder of the semester for most students.
“There’s always been the practice in the Church to place ourselves under the patronage, under the beneficial, beneficent care of the Virgin,” he said. “And that was exactly what they were doing in 1849, and probably something that Catholics should still do today.”
“It’s this idea that the caring Mother of God will take care of us, and that helps us to get out of our own selves and our own fears.”