On October 31st three of us made a pilgrimage to the cemetery in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Sister Michele Doyle, a School Sister of St. Francis who had taught at St. Francis School in Yazoo City, Sister Margaret Held, with whom I live, and I traveled to find and pray at the graves of our four Sisters who are buried there.
In 1878, almost seven years after six Sisters arrived in Yazoo City to start the school, three of them died while nursing townspeople during a yellow fever epidemic. At the very same time, our Sisters in Holly Springs, MS were living out the same crisis. In Holly Springs, six of the twelve Sisters would die from the yellow fever epidemic. To this day those Sisters in Holly Springs are known and revered as “The Yellow Fever Martyrs.” At that time, any person with the financial resources fled their towns to “higher ground,” believing they would escape the epidemic. Our Sisters and their pastor stayed to care for sick, become sick themselves, and some died.
Between September 22, 1878 and October 31, 1878, nine of our Sisters in Mississippi died. What loss! What grief must have followed such a loss! How did our community respond, given the great distance and limited communication of that time? (In the parish history of St. Mary’s it was noted that Yazoo City was the most distant SCN mission in the South.) How has this total sacrifice become a part of our community identity? How has their total surrender and sacrifice become a part of our breath and spirit and deepest consciousness?
As we prayed at the cemetery, we were impressed by the gratitude and reverence of the parishioners who have carried on the memory of the Sisters. We prayed with parishioners in gratitude for the Sisters’ lives and deaths. These women are our ancestors, our mothers in ministry. May we carry on their Spirit, their love for the people, their willingness to do whatever the moment asks, and to give all.