Sister Constance

November 1 Blog Photo

I began my ordained ministry at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee. St. Mary’s fit the picture of a grand old Cathedral, and it had a wonderful history of doing God’s work. As a young priest in the Episcopal church, I found my faith reinforced by the worship. The music, the splendid architecture, the liturgy — all were transcendent for a brand-new, hot-shot clergyman. I felt like I had arrived. Until the Spirit got hold of me.

You wouldn’t have noticed anything different about me. On the outside, I guess I looked the same. Inside was a different matter. Every Sunday I kneeled at the altar and there was an inscription “Alleluia Osanna.” At some point, I found the nerve to inquire as to what the inscription meant. With rapt attention, I was told, and listened to, the many stories of the selfless service given by “Constance and her Companions.”

With devotion and remarkable energy, Constance led a small band of American Anglican nuns to minister and care for residents living in the neighborhood district of the cathedral during the virulent spread in Memphis of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. The stories about the bravery, courage, and compassion of these nuns who visited and cared for the widows and orphans was quite remarkable. Fleeing citizens matched by the rising death rate turned Memphis into a ghost town at a time the city was still trying to recover from the Civil War.

On September 9, 1878, Sister Constance died from the yellow fever at the age of 33. Her last words were, “Alleluia! Osanna!” Those words were transcribed on the altar at St. Mary’s. And they were inscribed on my heart. What I learned from Constance was that she did not just talk a good game, she lived it. She didn’t just hear the word; she did the word. And she was young. Idealistic. Religious. Spiritual. Competent. Strong.  She was what we might call today “a first responder.” Her character inspired me at that impressionable age and stage of my life and I thought about her witness then, as I do now. She was amazing.

Fast-forward to COVID-19. A different day and a different time. I wonder about the spiritual landscape today. I reflect on how it differs from the boomer generation, or the greatest generation, much less the 1878 church in Memphis where I kneeled, or the first century church in Jerusalem begun by James. Are we all that much different? Or is there what scholars refer to as a “hermeneutical proximity” that allows us like the god Hermes to pull a message that speaks to us all out of a particular time and context.

It is out of this yearning to witness my ordained ministry began. Bound together by religion and the spiritual life the memories of Constance are strong but the hope I have for the next generation is even stronger. My book is written: A Letter to the Church and the Next Generation: Spiritual Growth Through the Witness of James. The Dedication is written to our six grandchildren, may they be “doers of the Word.”

That’s what I mean about hope.

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