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: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!