Prayers during plagues

Locusts in modern Africa reminder of Midwest swarms of 19th century

COVID-19, called a pandemic by most, reminds others of a biblical plague. However, the coronavirus is not the only problem of epic proportions. Right now, in 2020, eastern Africa is in the middle of what many there are calling “LOCUST-19,” swarms of locusts.

The Book of Exodus speaks of a plague of locusts that swept over Egypt in the time of Moses. Today, the locust swarms — in at least 10 countries from Iran to Yemen, Kenya and Ethiopia — are just as large and devastating. The infestation of locusts in the region is the worst seen in 70 years, fueled by unusually high rainfall over the past two years.

Migratory locusts are attacking Africa in swarms. Bigstock.com

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), part of the United Nations (U.N.) has noted that one swarm of locusts — in just one day — can eat the same amount of food as 3,500 people in the same day. By June, the FAO expects a 400 times increase in the insects if they are left unchecked. Pesticides are of use, but the COVID-19 pandemic is also hindering those efforts. People have been reduced to the age-old practices of burning the insects and banging pans in the fields. (The insects don’t like loud noises.)

Locusts vs. grasshoppers

Locusts are grasshoppers. The difference between grasshoppers and locusts is in “social distancing,” as it were. The small grasshoppers we see in farm fields are hungry individuals and when they decide to swarm, they become known as locusts.

Today, the United States does not have a breed of grasshoppers capable of swarming. The Rocky Mountain locust, a true swarming insect, became extinct here within the last century.

Prior to that, though, locust swarms were common across our Midwest. Anyone familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing will know about her description of “clouds” of locusts in Minnesota in “On the Banks of Plum Creek.”

“The cloud was hailing grasshoppers,” Ingalls Wilder wrote. “The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. … The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm.”

Last great U.S. swarm

The last great swarms in the United States came in the 1870s. The worst year seems to have been from 1874-75, when swarms covered an area in the Midwest that spanned 198,000 square miles and consisted of over 12 trillion insects. (That area is three times the size of Wisconsin.) One swarm was so large that it is recorded as the greatest concentration of animals in the Guinness World Records.

In 1877, Minnesota’s Gov. John Pillsbury declared a statewide day of prayer on April 26.

At that same time, a Benedictine priest who served two parishes in the state decided that his people should petition the help of the Blessed Mother against the locusts. Fr. Leo Winter proposed erecting a chapel in Mary’s honor between St. James Parish in Jacobs Prairie, Minn., and its mission parish of St. Nicholas in St. Nicholas.

Grasshopper Chapel

They built the chapel at Cold Spring, Minn., and dedicated it to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin on Aug. 15, 1877. For years, the wooden chapel saw parishioners fulfill their promise to offer a Mass of Thanksgiving every Saturday. Assumption Chapel became known as “the Grasshopper Chapel.”

The locusts did not return the next year, or any year after in great numbers. The last time a Rocky Mountain Locust was officially spotted in the entire United States was in 1904. (Why they went extinct is unknown, but speculation is that human population increase played a factor.)

A tornado destroyed the original chapel in Cold Spring in 1894. It was rebuilt in 1951, by parish members of St. Boniface Parish in Cold Spring. They dedicated this new chapel on Oct. 7, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, on Maria Hilf (Mary’s Hill). However, they built the new chapel of granite from local quarries.

Inside the chapel stands the original statue of Mary and the Child Jesus from the 1877 chapel. Above the doors is a stone image of Mary standing on clouds with grasshoppers kneeling before her.

While there are no pews inside, outdoor services are held on various feast days, especially the Assumption. There are also outdoor Stations of the Cross. Traditionally, each May and June, a novena Mass for the planting and harvest seasons is prayed there on Thursday evenings. With the COVID-19 pandemic, those are not happening.

Assumption Chapel is located in Cold Spring, Minn., off of State Highway 23 and Chapel Hill Street, about 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

 

Sources: FAO.org; atlasobscura.com; Catholic News Service at catholicnews.com; daily.jstor.org; the Catholic Digest; euobserver.com; stboniface.com; sciencemag.org; farmprogress.com; thecatholictravelguide.com; catholic.org; On the Banks of Plum Creek; coldspring.govoffice.com; and theguardian.com