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St. James during the Spanish Flu


by Emily Niblick


These are trying times, when a silent and invisible enemy lurks everywhere undetected, and we are forced to change our lifestyles and freedoms. We hide in our homes, unable to go out for anything but necessities. We watch tv, where it seems there is only one topic to report: the skyrocketing number of cases, the mounting number of deaths.

What a blessing it has been to be able to watch our bishop and clergy lead us in Morning Prayer on Sunday mornings! The digital age has at least made it possible to keep together, to see familiar faces, to hear the Word despite our confinement. And to remain safe doing so.

It was not that way in the later months of 1918 and the first quarter of 1919. The country was engulfed in another pandemic, the Spanish Influenza, which came home from Europe with returning soldiers and spread rapidly throughout the nation. Eventually, that virus would take over 50 million lives worldwide.

The first mention of the influenza epidemic was in a short piece in the Fresno Morning Republican on April 5th, 1918. The War Department reported that the health of soldiers was good, but there had been an uptick in the number of flu cases which led to pneumonia. Fatalities for the month of March were 237. By May the department was reporting 792 deaths. By the end of June the Republican was reporting that the “grippe” epidemic was raging through the German army as well, which caused some to feel the end of the war may be forced to come soon.

July brought reports that the Kaiser had the influenza as the disease continued to ravage Europe. But, as reported in the Republican on July 29th, the army reported that influenza cases had begun to diminish in number among their forces. The only mention of the disease in August was in the edition of the 14th, in which a short story headlined “Fear Influenza Brought to US” told of nine sailors from a Norwegian ship docked in New York were put into isolation for fear they were carrying the Spanish Influenza.

On September 11th the Republican reported “Grippe Raging Among Men In Naval Service”. The next day, a front-page article headlined “Spanish Grippe Now In America” was underlined “Drastic Measure May Be Taken By Government Against It”. After saying the federal government was planning to spread the word on how to contain it, the final paragraph stated : “Spanish Influenza, although short lived and of practically no permanent serious results, is a most distressing ailment which prostrates one for a few days during which he suffers the acme of discomfort”. By the end of the month it had spread throughout the northeast. On September 28th, the Republican reported that Mr. & Mrs. William P. Selker and their children had been quarantined in Waterford, east of Modesto, because of influenza. They had recently been in Cuba and coming home traveled with many soldiers on public conveyances. As far as I can tell, they are the first case to be reported in the Central Valley.

By the end of October, the influenza was striking all over the Valley. In Firebaugh, a mother and father, recently arrived from Montana, were found dead in their home. Left were the couple’s four children, ages 7, 4, 18 months and 6 months. Communities across the Valley were reacting by closing non-essential shops. Bakersfield was particularly hard hit, and the city ordered all saloons, barber shops and other stores to close their doors, and at one point during October, threatened to shut the city down if people did not obey the rules of distance.

The Influenza roared on through November and December. The Fresno City Board of Health tried desperately to stop the spread. Already Fresno held the highest percentage of cases in the state (by population). The city council of Fresno blocked any move by the Board of Health to close down businesses and keep people at home. Finally, the Board had too much.

On January 4th, 1919, the entire Board of Health resigned. They had been rebuked for their efforts to close down all saloons, pool halls, theatres, all other places of amusement, public meetings and churches. After debate the council agreed to pass the ordinance.

The following Monday the Republican recounted church activities for the previous day. The article began: “With the belief that it is their Christian duty to give their congregations the opportunity to worship, as expressed by them in a public declaration, the following churches held services in their churches on Sunday. St. James Episcopal, St. John’s, St. Alphonsus, Northside Christian, First Armenian Presbyterian and Westminster Presbyterian…

“St. James Pro-Cathedral had a good attendance, Dean G.R.E. MacDonald reported. The value of the services, he said, did not lie in the numbers who attended but, in the comfort, and solace brought to those who sought church worship at this time. He declared that if desired he would hold services though the attendance were reduced to a single person. It was the duty of the church to serve its people in the worship of God.” The other churches in the city kept their doors closed.

The following Sunday, Bishop L. C. Sanford led the service and preached on “What Is Religion?”. St. James remained open through the last of the epidemic. January would see many deaths in Fresno from influenza, but it did begin to wane as the year progressed.

As it was for us in this present crisis, closing the church seemed to them to be a violation of the call to serve (although other churches obeyed the order). But what constitutes serving? Is staying open and spreading a nearly uncontrollable virus service? Endangering lives? Of course, God has blessed us with a lot more knowledge of disease today than we had one hundred years ago; but they knew how it spread. People were warned against being near a person who might cough or sneeze and thus spread “droplets” containing the “germ”.

Today, God has given us a new way to worship. It will not always be so. But, in the meantime, enjoy seeing our clergy practicing their calling via your tablet, phone or TV and rejoice that we have that today!

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