In a newly published 35-page report, Patrick J. Hayes, Ph.D., archivist for the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province, examines how the Redemptorists of the United States fared during the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918-19 and how their communities responded. It is perhaps the most in-depth study to date of any dealing with vowed religious, whether men or women, and the catastrophic days of 1918.
It’s only recently that social historians have begun considering the previous century’s pandemic, Dr. Hayes said.
“The period I studied has one dominant theme: the First World War and its ultimate resolution in the Armistice Agreement. The fact that President Woodrow Wilson never spoke a word about the ravages of the influenza epidemic tells us something. He did not want the United States to appear weakened in any way,” he said. “That’s one reason social historians have not done full-scale studies about the flu and are only now considering it in light of the current pandemic.”
Sources other than medical records and health statistics can give a much fuller picture of the story, and because the Redemptorists served in every major American city in the early 1900s, “their viewpoint can be very instructive,” he said.
“I’m trying to help this group of religious understand their own history a bit more. They’ve endured a lot, and they’ve accompanied their people faithfully through some very difficult times. Getting a sense of perspective on what is happening now can come from a study of the past, especially during periods of physical separation,” Dr. Hayes said.
A thorough comprehension of the historical record can also inform the ways in which church communities respond to the current crisis, Dr. Hayes said.
“Many of the same sentiments expressed a century ago during the flu pandemic have arisen in our own day, with important differences. There was no CARES Act or unemployment insurance back then. The social safety net was mostly limited to the bread line. There was no retirement fund for vowed religious. But they all pulled through it. That’s the big takeaway: with creativity and faith, history tells us that no trial is too big for us to overcome.”