The current COVID-19 pandemic is the latest crisis that the people of the Diocese of Nashville throughout its history have shouldered, providing spiritual and material help in the face of floods, epidemics and war.
With people confined to their homes, non-essential businesses shuttered, schools forced to conduct lessons online, COVID-19 has disrupted life not only in the diocese but across the country.
In that disruption, Msgr. Owen Campion, a native of Nashville, a former editor of the Tennessee Register, and an unofficial historian of the diocese, sees similarities to life during World War II.
“That would be the situation in our memory most similar to what is going on now,” Msgr. Campion said.
World War I, like all wars, brought with it a horrendous loss of life, Msgr. Campion said. And the first soldier from Tennessee who was killed in action was a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Incarnation.
“The war was very traumatic for the whole country, although considering other wars, it did not last that long,” Msgr. Campion said. “None of that eclipsed what came in the Second World War.”
‘Life was never, ever the same’
“Life was totally changed,” Msgr. Campion said of the country’s experience in World War II. “No family was ever the same after the war. Life was never, ever the same.”
“There was probably not a family in Middle Tennessee as a whole, let alone Catholics, that did not have someone in the service as the war went along,” Msgr. Campion said. “And so many of them died.”
Like today, he said, life was filled with anxiety. “The anxiety of not knowing day by day what had become of your son, what would become of him.”
On the home front, everything revolved around supporting the war effort.
“It’s amazing how there’s no trace of remembrance of this,” but rationing of food and a host of other products needed by the military had a drastic impact on peoples’ lives, Msgr. Campion said. “And it went on for years.”
“People would line up at the grocery … to get in,” Msgr. Campion said. “You would try to get in before they sold out of meat and butter and sugar and dairy products.”
“The average citizen, it was hard to believe, but they got three gallons of gasoline a week,” he added. “It’s hard to believe.”
“Shoes were another thing,” Msgr. Campion said. People were limited to buying two pairs a year. “A lot of people made do. Shoe repair shops became a major industry.”
With so many people off fighting the war, there were jobs with no people to fill them, Msgr. Campion said.
If your telephone needed to be repaired, he said, “You were out of luck, because there was no one there to repair it.”
Many doctors and dentists were drafted into the military, so the few that remained worked constantly seeing patients, Msgr. Campion said.
Nashville had two medical office buildings downtown, Msgr. Campion said. “On each floor, the hall was lined with chairs with the overflow” of patients hoping to see a doctor or a dentist. “Many of them didn’t have appointments. There was no point. … you would go down there and hope they would see you.”
The diocese joined the war effort with the rest of the country. Several priests served on the front lines in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific as chaplains.
Back at home, the diocese mobilized to serve the thousands of soldiers traveling through Nashville and Middle Tennessee for training, even with fewer priests. “Bishop (William) Adrian was very responsive,” Msgr. Campion said.
St. Mary’s Church in downtown Nashville was a short walk from the train station. It was constantly crowded with Catholic soldiers attending Mass. On Sundays there would be four or five times scheduled for Masses and at each time, there would be two Masses, one in the church and another in a large room downstairs, Msgr. Campion said. “And they would be crowded.”
The area around Lebanon east of Nashville was used for several training maneuvers, and priests would travel to the field to celebrate Mass for the soldiers.
Tennessee was also home to two prisoner of war camps, one for German prisoners and another for Italian prisoners.
“Of course they were all Catholics,” Msgr. Campion said of the Italian prisoners. And probably a third of the Germans were Catholic, he added.
“None of them had a chaplain. There were no priests,” Msgr. Campion said. “Bishop Adrian stepped into the breech.”
The bishop had studied at the North American College in Rome and could speak Italian, Msgr. Campion said. “He would hear confessions, he would preach in Italian, he would talk with those men, counsel with those men in Italian.”
The diocese also hosted dances every Sunday night for the soldiers, and Catholic organizations worked with the USO to provide meals at the train station for soldiers traveling through the city.
“There were stories like that that went on and on and on,” Msgr. Campion said.
Surviving the Civil War
For the people of Nashville during the Civil War, the home front was the front line.
“Nashville was the first state capitol of the 11 Confederate states that was captured by the Federals,” Msgr. Campion said. “There was not a shot fired. The Federals just walked in. But life was disrupted.”
The Union Army, which occupied Nashville in 1862, was encamped on the edge of the Dominican Sisters Motherhouse property, and took control of St. Mary’s, which was then the cathedral for the diocese, to use for their own purposes, Msgr. Campion said.
The only school in the city that was permitted to remain open was St. Cecilia Academy, which had been founded in 1860.
“The reason was the Catholic nuns had a reputation of being very benevolent and kind to people affected by the war and especially nursing the wounded,” Msgr. Campion said. “So, St. Cecilia as a result is the oldest continuously operated school in Nashville.”
Catholics in Tennessee, like their neighbors, favored secession, and like their neighbors, many left to fight for the Confederacy.
In the Civil War, military units were organized by geographic region, Msgr. Campion said, composed of “a group of men from the same area, the same neighborhood.”
The Tenth Tennessee Regiment was one of only two Irish Catholic regiments in the Confederate Army.
Father Emmeran Bliemel, a priest for the Diocese of Nashville, left Tennessee to join the Tenth Tennessee as a military chaplain. He became the first Catholic chaplain killed in action when he was killed at the Battle of Jonesboro in Georgia on Aug. 31, 1864, as he administered last rites to a dying soldier, Col. William Grace.
During the pivotal Battle of Nashville in December 1864, both St. Mary’s and the Church of the Assumption were used as hospitals to treat the wounded. In St. Mary’s alone more than 300 men, both Union and Confederate troops, died on the church floor.
Sisters and priests willingly took on roles as nurses and chaplains to tend to the wounded and dying.
Heroism in the face of disease
Wars weren’t the only time Catholics jumped into the fray. During several epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, Catholic priests and religious sisters risked their own health and safety to care for the suffering.
“There were several cholera epidemics in Nashville,” Msgr. Campion said. One of them took the life of former President James K. Polk, who died in Nashville in 1849 only months after leaving office.
Among those who nursed the sick during the cholera epidemics that struck Nashville were the Sisters of Mercy, who arrived in the city in the aftermath of the Civil War. “They stepped into the scene of nursing the sick.”
The Church’s response to the deadly yellow fever epidemics that struck Chattanooga and Memphis, which at the time were part of the Diocese of Nashville, were heroic.
During the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 in Chattanooga, four fifths of the city’s population fled the city. Among those who stayed was Servant of God Father Patrick Ryan, the pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, who would later be among the 386 people who were felled by the dread disease.
Eyewitnesses said Father Ryan went “from house to house in the worst-infected section of the city to find what he could do for the sick and needy.” He continued ministering to his flock after he himself had contracted the disease to within 48 hours of his death.
Church officials in the Diocese of Knoxville, which now includes Chattanooga, have proposed Father Ryan’s cause for sainthood.
In Memphis, three yellow fever epidemics that hit the city in the 1870s were even more devasting, and “nearly took the city out,” Msgr. Campion said.
The yellow fever also produced one of the finest hours for the Catholic Church in Tennessee, as priests, sisters and laypeople responded with selflessness and courage to the horrifying disease that could kill people in a few short weeks or even days.
Yellow fever is a hemorrhagic fever caused by a virus spread by a particular species of mosquito. But in the 1870s, people didn’t know that. They thought it was caused by a germ that spread through moisture in the air or was a gas that emanated from bayous and swamps.
What they knew for sure was the devastating impact of the epidemic.
It first appeared in Memphis in the late summer and fall of 1873. The city, with its nearby swamps and poor sanitation at the time, proved an excellent breeding ground for the mosquitoes that spread the disease.
It was the city’s Irish Catholic community that suffered the harshest blows from the first epidemic. “The fever began with them,” wrote Thomas Stritch in his history of the diocese, “The Catholic Church in Tennessee: The Sesquicentennial Story.” During the epidemic, 5,000 people caught the fever and 2,000 died. Of the dead, Stritch said, at least half of them were Irish.
While the majority of the population were fleeing the city, the Catholic clergy and sisters remained to tend to the sick and dying, only for some of them to die of the yellow fever themselves.
The yellow fever returned to Memphis in the summer of 1878, and the death toll was even heavier.
The arrival of the fever again caused a panicked exodus as up to 30,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents fled. A total of 5,150 people died, including more than 2,000 Catholics.
Again, the clergy and sisters were heroic in tending to those stricken. Among the dead was Father Martin Riordan, the vicar general of the diocese and the pastor of St. Patrick Church. He had survived the 1873 epidemic and was out of the state recuperating from an illness when the yellow fever returned. He rushed back to Memphis and soon became a victim.
Sixteen priests and brothers and around 30 religious sisters died during the epidemic of 1878, according to Stritch.
Nashville Bishop Patrick Feehan was determined to protect the orphans in the Church’s care in Memphis. When no one in Nashville would lease space to him to house the Memphis orphans because they were so afraid they would bring the yellow fever with them, he had a temporary home built for them on the grounds of St. Mary’s Orphanage and moved 60 of them to Nashville to stay until the epidemic subsided.
The yellow fever returned a third time in 1879 to claim still more victims. Throughout the decade, the church lost more than 20 priests and an estimated 50 sisters, as well as thousands of lay people. In his history of the 1878 epidemic, J.M, Keating, the editor of the Memphis Appeal and a member of the Citizens’ Relief Committee, wrote: “The Catholic priesthood stood unrivaled in their zeal, self-denial and self-sacrifice.”
In May 2010, Nashville was hit by a flood of biblical proportions. Catholics, like thousands of Middle Tennessee residents, were quick to brave the rising waters to pull friends, family and neighbors to safety.
And when the city faced an unprecedented clean-up, Catholic Charities of Tennessee, parishes, Catholic schools, and individuals dove in to help.
Catholic Charities collected and distributed donations of clothes, cleaning supplies and other items for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed, and droves of people went into their neighbors’ homes to help salvage what they could and remove the rest so the rebuilding could begin.
Like today’s COVID-19 pandemic, when the people of the diocese have been hit by wars, disease and flood, the Church and its people have reached out to serve others and to strengthen the faith of the people.
In these times of crisis, Msgr. Campion said, Catholics, along with the general population, have suffered through “enormous hardship and inconvenience and even worse, and endured.”