Religious sisters played major role in battling Spanish flu

ALLOUEZ — Today’s COVID-19 pandemic carries echoes of an epidemic that struck the world a century ago. Called “the Spanish flu” — though it had nothing to do with Spain and probably developed in the United States — this H1N1-variant influenza struck 500 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1920. People wore masks, often made of cheesecloth (which proved not effective).

A Daughter of Charity, right, helps a nurse with a patient at Carney Hospital in Boston during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. (CNS photo | Courtesy of Daughters of Charity, Province of St. Louis)

The Spanish flu killed an estimated 50 million and 675,000 died in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at least 10,000 Wisconsinites died from the flu between 1918 and 1919.

Like many religious communities of the time, the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity (FSCC) served in Wisconsin hospitals in 1918, including in Antigo (now Aspirus Langlade). Records of their service can be seen in a story of a Manitowoc Franciscan sister who served in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1918.

Sr. Aquinas Kinskey, a 25-year-old teacher, had been sent to Zanesville to care for her parents who had the Spanish flu. After they recovered, Sr. Aquinas was assigned to the County Children’s Home and a dormitory with 27 sick boys.

“Their matron was afraid to go into the room for fear she might get the flu,” she recounted in records shared by Sr. Caritas Strodthoff, current FSCC archivist.

“For three days,” Sr. Aquinas wrote, “the boys had had nothing to eat or drink. I just went around the first day taking temperatures and giving them water. I would put a tag on the toes of all the boys I thought were so far gone that they were going to die. When the doctor arrived he just looked at the ‘tagged boys.’”

With Sr. Aquinas’ care, all but one of the boys recovered.

A letter from Abbot Bernard Pennings, preserved at St. Norbert Abbey, mentions that Norbertine Fr. Paul Lanctot succumbed to the flu. Fr. Lanctot died Jan. 25, 1919, age 28, at “the Chapel in Robinsonville,” (now the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help). At the time, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross staffed the boarding school there. The same letter says Norbertine Fr. Milo Smits caught the flu from Fr. Lanctot and nearly died himself.

Quick Station Action
In Wisconsin, the state took quick action. On the same day Oshkosh was running out of funeral flowers, Dr. Cornelius Harper, the Wisconsin State Health Officer, ordered the closing of schools, churches, Sunday schools, movie and live theater venues, “other places of amusement” and all public gatherings. Factories, offices and workplaces could remain open. His order — similar to present-Gov. Tony Evers’ “shelter-at-home” order — remained in effect until late December.

No records exist in the archives of the Diocese of Green Bay about church closures during the Spanish flu. However, on Oct. 12, 1918, six Oshkosh priests announced in the Daily Northwestern newspaper that their churches would close. This was two days after Dr. Harper’s order. These priests were Msgr. Alois Bastian, Fr. James Hogan, Fr. Anthony Krauza, Msgr. R. Michael Schmitz, Msgr. John Selbach and Fr. Michael Clifford.

In Green Bay, according to records at St. Mary of the Angels Parish, schools were closed by the city health officer. Also, Masses were not held at St. Mary’s from Oct. 14 to Nov. 4, 1918. On three Sundays — Oct. 20, Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 — Masses were celebrated outside the monastery.

Many people, as they are today, were dismayed by the closing of churches. The book, “The Great War Comes to Wisconsin” references a priest in Racine refusing to close St. Rose Church. Dr. Harper contacted Milwaukee’s then-Archbishop Sebastian Messmer (who had served as bishop of Green Bay from 1892-1903), and the church was closed.

Quarantine Pays Off
Wisconsin’s efforts at quarantine in 1918 succeeded. The state had one of the lowest death rates in the country. According to Wisconsin’s Board of Health records, out of 25 registered states, Wisconsin had the fourth lowest death rate: 3.3 deaths per 1,000 residents.

While the Spanish flu receded after the October 1918 quarantine, it returned. Things worsened briefly after news arrived of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. Street parades and other celebrations broke the curfew and quarantines.

By Nov. 14, the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern reported a rise in new influenza cases. Oshkosh reinforced its bans, including one about public spitting, until the end of November. Schools reopened shortly before Christmas.

However, Christmas 1918 in Wisconsin was similar to Easter celebrations around the state in 2020. According to the Dec. 17, 1918, Janesville Daily Gazette, Archbishop Messmer again closed churches in the Milwaukee Archdiocese and did not allow midnight Mass to be celebrated on Christmas Eve.

For Catholics in 1918 and Catholics in 2020, the words of Mother Ephrosine to her fellow Manitowoc sisters still echoes today: “The Lord is the master. Do your best during the time that is at your disposal and leave the rest to him.”

Assistance was offered by the archives of the Diocese of Green Bay; archives of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity; St. Norbert Abbey records; and records of the Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS).


Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series.
Part 1