By Virginia DeWitt, Archivist
In the fall of 1918, Canadians were looking forward to the hoped for end of the First World War (1914-1918) when another catastrophe struck, this time very close to home. What became known as the Spanish Influenza spread at a devastating pace throughout Canadian society. By the time it was officially over in 1920, the epidemic in Canada left a death toll (55,000) which was almost as large as the one from four years of war (60,000).
A Eucharistic Congress held in September 1918 at Victoriaville, Quebec is believed to have been the origin for the spread of the virus in Canada. By the second week of October 1918, many churches were being ordered to close. However, official response was sporadic and uncoordinated throughout Canada. In Alberta, for example, official response embraced mask-wearing for all citizens, whereas in Toronto, only medical personnel were required to wear a mask. This regional disparity is reflected in the annals of the various Redemptorist foundations from the period. In Quebec City, for example, the annalist at St. Patrick’s records that “all the schools were ordered to be closed,” that all the churches had been closed in Montreal and that “all places of assembly in Quebec [such] as theatres, moving picture houses, etc are ordered by the Board of Health to close their doors.”
Whereas at St. Patrick’s in Toronto, it is evident that the church never completely shut down. The reason is recorded by the annalist, “At the request of His Grace the Archbishop and on account of the Epidemic of Influenza & in accordance with the wishes of the medical authorities only a Low Mass & reading of announcements [allowed] – no sermon – at 10:30 o’cl …No sermons at the other Low Masses this morning.” It amounted to all “non-essential” services being cancelled.
Throughout Canada, the shutdowns only lasted 4-5 weeks, at most. By mid-November 1918, churches were re-opening even as it was not yet clear the danger was past.
A sense of dread permeates Redemptorist annals throughout October and November 1918. At St. Patrick’s in London, ON the annalist records a description of growing panic as the reality of living through an epidemic dawns, “Board of health at a special session … ordered all places where public gathers to be closed. Cars are disinfected every trip. Great demand for nurses, doctors and undertakers. Hospitals full. God spare us.”
Redemptorists responded in a variety of ways. At St. Patrick’s, Quebec City a Relief Committee was formed to “take care of our people during this Epidemic.” By late October the Committee “had visited some 50 patients. They had $250 to the good from contributions received.” And although the priests at St. Patrick’s in Toronto continued to offer Low Masses for the faithful, most missionary work necessarily had to be curtailed for the fall of 1918.
However, work at the out-missions continued and those of Yorkton, SK were especially hard hit. On November 6, 1918, the annalist for St. Gerard’s records, “The Influenza is at its height in Yorkton. There were many cases of illness yet relatively few died in town. The country districts fared worse, owing to the scarcity of help. Very often whole families are stricken down and no one to nurse them.”
Fr. Stephen Mayer, serving the out-missions of St. Gerard’s, Yorkton, records an experience at the train station in Mikado, SK in early November 1918.
I was told of a man being sick in the old station. I went to see him, but great God, such a sad sight a poor Ruthenian
man, lying on a dirty bed, entirely abandoned by the people, struggling with death. …
Fr. Mayer ministered to the man until “a little boy coming in, about 12 years old,” his own parents both ill with the disease, arrived to wash “this poor man. I said, ‘You are a brave boy.’ I went home to Canora, where there are many sick people. Thanks [be to] God, so far I am all right. May God keep me under his special protection! I went to bed tired & exhausted.”
Redemptorists within the newly created Toronto Province were not spared their own losses. On October 27, 1918, after six days of illness, Fr. Francis Corrigan succumbed to influenza at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto at the young age of 30. Fr. Corrigan’s was the first death to occur within the new Province.
Although a number of confreres contracted the disease, thankfully Fr. Corrigan’s was the only death. However, confreres suffered losses within their immediate families. Fr. Timothy O’Sullivan, stationed at St. Patrick’s Toronto and chaplain at Toronto General Hospital, lost two sisters within one week in October 1918. During the same month, Fr. James Cloran, a renowned preacher of missions, lost a brother in Montreal and Fr. Donald McDougald, superior of St. Gerard’s, Yorkton lost a brother in Calgary. Further losses included numerous parishioners and other Catholic religious in their local communities.
Throughout the Toronto Province, the annals record the height of the epidemic in the fall of 1918. There seemed to be a brief second wave in January – February 1919, then mention of the “Flu” disappears almost entirely, with the exception of Toronto and Regina where it returned once more in early 1920. In all the Redemptorist foundations, once parish life and services were able to get back to normal they did so at a surprisingly swift pace.