Looking back at the 1918 Flu epidemic in the Archdiocese of Denver

In September 1918, the Spanish Flu began to ravage the world. Despite its name, the Spanish Flu’s origins may not have been the Iberian, but by the time it had run its course, this H1N1 “bird flu” virus infected about 500 million, killing an estimated 50 million worldwide with 675,000 of the victims in the United States.

Just over a century later and in the midst of our own global pandemic, a look back at media reports during the time of Spanish Flu is eerily reminiscent of our current era.

The first recorded death from the flu in Denver occurred on Sept. 27, 1918. By Oct. 6, schools, theaters and churches were ordered to close by Dr. William H. Sharpley, Denver’s Manager of Health. A front page headline in the Oct. 10, 1918 edition of the Denver Catholic Register read: “Church is without Mass first Sunday in thirty-six years”; another headline on that same front page read: “Many Colorado churches closed by influenza – Masses cannot be offered on Sunday even outdoors in many Colo. parishes.”

What followed in the subsequent weeks was not unlike what today’s Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver experienced through the month of April and into May. In the Oct. 17, 1918 edition of the Register, one article headline read: “Mass prayers said at home are truly consoling in days of closed churches.”

The article began by describing the scene at a parish in Pueblo: “St. Patrick’s church was lonely and desolate again last Sunday. No Mass, no Benediction! What a weary, dreary place this worldly world becomes without these great manifestations of Infinite Love. We feel like the Children of Israel in exile, as they watched by the waters of Babylon and wept when they remembered Sion [sic].”

It went on to offer words of instruction to the Catholics of the day, which are, once again, germane to what today’s Catholics experienced during the month of April, and even are experiencing now, as public Mass is still limited and not yet being celebrated at full capacity:

“All good Catholics, especially those who have the missal in English, should read and ponder their Mass prayers at home on these Sundays when they cannot assemble in church for the Great Sacrifice. In the sublime words and sentiments which Holy Church prescribes as instruments to be used in each Mass, they will find much matter for thought and much meat for consolation.”

As the death count dwindled and it seemed the peak had passed, Dr. Sharpley lifted the ban on public gatherings Nov. 11. That also happened to be the day World War I ended. In the book Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis, a raucous scene is described: “Health regulations would have been ignored that day anyway. Thousands jammed downtown streets, shouting and yelling, trailing tin cans behind cars and bicycles to add to the din. Over 8,000 poured into the City Auditorium to sing and to listen to speeches. In the evening, theaters, many of them redecorated during their idle weeks, reopened to entertain ‘monster crowds.'”

By late November, flu deaths spiked, and Dr. Sharpley once again ordered a ban on public gatherings. He also required shoppers and streetcar passengers to wear masks in public. This sparked a somewhat familiar reaction from the general public: “The rule proved unpopular, especially since people were not certain that the measures would work. Theater owners objected to closing again, and many people refused to wear masks.”

Not long after, Sharpley allowed theaters and churches to reopen with certain restrictions, and he also revoked the mask order. Flu cases peaked in Denver the week of Dec. 7, and rapidly declined through the end of the year.

For Catholics, it probably felt like a more joyous Christmas than usual that year. In the Dec. 26, 1918 issue of the Register, readers were likely delighted to read the headline “Public Mass again said in Littleton.” The article that followed read: “The ban has been raised and attendance at church was permitted on last Sunday. Notwithstanding the depth of the snow and the stormy nature of the morning, the attendance was good, some coming quite a distance. On Christmas morning there were two Masses celebrated … Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was given after the last Mass.”

How comforting it is to know that in 2020, as we live through another global pandemic, we are loved by the very same Lord who sustained our brothers and sisters in the Church while they struggled through a trial of their own in 1918, and his Church is still standing strong in the midst of it. Let us continue to pray for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash