Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Catholicism in the South: Yellow Fever Martyrs

If the Deep South is the Bible Belt and Mississippi is it's buckle, then we have a pretty good vantage point for observances of Southern Catholicism. In this region, we're seeped in the evangelical persuasion of Christianity (something with which I'm very personally familiar), so it's often easy to forget that the very first European settlers and Christian missionaries in the Deep South were Catholics (gasp!). In fact, Catholicism has the longest continuous history of any organized religious tradition in the South (we've been here since 1513!). This is the first of a new series of posts which will highlight Catholicism in the South.

Yellow Fever Martyrs Museum in Holly Springs, Miss.
Holly Springs, Mississippi is a short drive from Oxford. Today, the town is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the Hill Country Blues. Alot of Ole Miss students also know that Holly Springs is home to Graceland Too (Mississippi's second-best-known Elvis attraction after this one) and they've tested the claims that the owner, Mr. McLeod, will give tours of this world-famous Elvis shrine any time of day or night. So Holly Springs has alot of music-related history. And any Civil War buff can tell you about Van Dorn's Raid in Holly Springs in 1862. But the town is also home to a peculiar structure on College Street, just a few blocks from the courthouse square: the "Yellow Fever Martyrs Museum."

The museum is housed in what was once St. Joseph's Catholic Church, a structure which dates to 1841. (Sadly, the local Catholic parish moved out of this uniquely beautiful and historic structure and into a sterile and indistinguishable 1980s building at the start of that decade.) Inside, a remarkable story of heroism and self-sacrifice is preserved. It dates back to a Yellow Fever outbreak in the town in 1878, an all-too-common chastisement suffered in towns throughout the deep south in this period (New Orleans and Memphis, to name only two, also suffered notable Yellow Fever epidemics in the latter 19th century). All who could afford to leave town during the epidemic did and Holly Springs never recovered, economically or population-wise. But among those who stayed were the local Catholic priest and the sisters of the local Catholic convent. They stayed only to nurse the sick and the dying, and they paid with their lives. The priest, Father Oberti, and six Sisters of Charity were all stricken with Yellow Fever themselves and died.

Detail from the memorial to the
Yellow Fever Martyrs in the local
Hillcrest Cemetery.
 The seven became known locally as the Yellow Fever Martyrs and were celebrated as heroes. Buried together in the local cemetery, the townspeople also raised money to construct a handsome monument to the seven, marking their sacrificial service to all in Holly Springs. Thankfully, the museum preserves the church in which they worshiped along with some of their personal effects. Perhaps one day, the church can be re-consecrated for its intended use (maybe as a chapel administered by the local parish) and the statuary and devotional items that fill it can again serve the purpose for which they were created. Hopefully, more will be researched and written about the lives and the service of this remarkable group. They deserve at least this much for they could very well be saints-in-waiting (think of Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos of New Orleans, who died in a very similar manner).

The story of the Yellow Fever Martyrs of Holly Springs should be told and retold. Mississippi Catholics should learn of their heroism. All Mississippians should honor their sacrifice. And Ole Miss students: if you're considering a trip to Holly Springs that's not in the middle of the night, you might take a few minutes to stop by the Yellow Fever Martyrs Museum.