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

Aaron Lambert

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: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.