September 16, 2010

The Martyrs of Memphis

A couple of days ago, Tobias Haller wrote a post on his blog, In a Godward Direction, called “Witness to the Witnesses.” There, he describes a visit to Memphis, Tennessee, where he took part in the celebration of the life and ministry of the Martyrs of Memphis.

I have, for some reason, always been moved by the story of, as styled in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, “Constance, Nun, and her Companions.” The Episcopal Church celebrates these folks, also known as the Martyrs of Memphis, on September 9. Certainly, it is easier for me to identify with this commemoration than with martyrdoms of many centuries ago. Also, having grown up in New Orleans, another city plagued by yellow fever in its early years, it is easy to relate to the plight of Memphis in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1878 in Memphis killed more than 5,000 people, among them Episcopal priests and nuns who stayed behind to minister to the sick, even after much of the population had fled in terror.

I have never put much stock in pilgrimages and saints’ relics, but Haller’s description of his Memphis activities, and particularly his visiting the graves of the martyrs and employing the “Memphis Chalice” for communion, was very moving. It caused me to reread information about the self-sacrificing Christians who put service to others ahead of their own safety in that terrible 1878 Memphis summer.

I invite you to read the pages about Constance and her Companions from the 2000 edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, which you can find here. James E. Kiefer offers some additional details, as does Wikipedia.

Update: Fr. John-Julian has graciously sent me an excerpt from his recent book Stars in a Dark World: Stories of the Saints and Holy Days of the Liturgy about the Martyrs of Memphis. This account offers more detail than any of the references I cited above. Fr. John-Julian’s 792-page 2009 paperback is available from most of the usual sources. You can also find it here.


  1. Thanks, Lionel. It is an inspiring story, and it is wonderful to see the way people in Memphis have kept the story alive. In addition to the 500 students at St Mary's School for the Friday morning Eucharist, and the over 300 at the Cathedral for Sunday Morning, I'd guess about another 100 or so attended the various other events. Special thanks go to Bindy Snyder and Scott Esholz for their efforts in organizing!

    I look forward to reading Charles Turner's short novel about Louis Schuyler The Celebrant and wonder why this story hasn't made it to film?

  2. Lionel, the story of the courageous Memphis martyrs is so very true to the Gospel. Thanks for honoring them. Next year, I'll try to remember to commemorate their feast day.


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