Sunday mornings are quiet in Chattanooga. Weeds grow up through the sidewalk on East 8th Street. Little flowers sprout in red brick corners. In a churchyard at the end of the street a man prays the rosary on a stone bench.
Blue and grey pigeons murmur along the roof edges. The quiet perfume of a dark-haired woman wearing a dress passes by. I followed her up the steps to the tall doors of the Minor Basilica of St. Peter and Paul.
I was looking for an old priest who died here 140 years ago. A movement has begun to have the man declared a saint by the Catholic church for the work he did ministering to the sick during Chattanooga’s Yellow Fever epidemic. The possibility of a saint being in our midst was something I had to explore.
But I come from old Protestant Irish stock—red-faced, curly-haired and blue-eyed. From men who have always been potato farmers and convicts. The occasional generation produced a butterfly chaser, but not too many.
We all die young: suicides, bad livers or madness. Our women seem to live forever and never forgive us for fleeing their moral brow-beatings. We’re peasants. Everything I know of God came from tent revivals and old Hank Williams songs. We have ghosts but no saints. My people have always feared the Catholic Church.
In the vestibule there I found myself among stone walls scented by a hundred years of incense. I was afraid to touch the holy water. An icon of a saint stood near the ceiling in the corner. He wore a dark tunic and a human skull was at his feet and he looked down on me in pity. Good people began filing in behind me and my clothes no longer felt like church clothes.
My hands were dirty. I took my hat off. The desire to leave the place became too much. When I turned to go there was the dark-haired woman. She gently pushed me forward, whispering, “Just do what everybody else does and you’ll be fine.”
Behind her I saw an old picture of a man in a cassock with a prayer underneath: “Heavenly Father, who inspired this Servant of God, Father Patrick Ryan, former pastor of this parish, to be a model of charity in action during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878, grant, we beseech You, that his heroic charity be recognized by Your Church, and that he be elevated to the full honor of Sainthood.”
This was the man. The crowd of people grew and humility brought me further inside.
I had come across Father Patrick Ryan’s name while researching the Yellow Fever epidemic. He was the pastor of Saints Peter and Paul’s parish in those days. He emigrated from County Tipperary, Ireland after his family had been “victimized by the vampire spirit of an Irish landlord.”
He spent his youth in New York, was ordained by the Church in Nashville and carried out his work as a priest in Chattanooga until his death in the fall of 1878. He was 33 years old and had led the church for only six years. In that time, he expanded the church and was responsible for the opening of the Notre Dame academy under the direction of the Dominican Sisters.
But it was his selfless charity during the Yellow Fever outbreak that has led him onto the path of Canonization. There was little else to be learned about the man, but the Yellow Fever has been well documented.
The disease began with chills and headaches. People complained of nausea and dizziness. When they stood up they vomited. They began bleeding from their noses and their lower stomach swelled. Women bled from between their legs and vomited black blood through seizures. When they finally died, their skin was yellow.
Yellow Fever came on a boat from Cuba and landed in New Orleans on May 23rd, 1878. Three months later, New Orleans was in a panic and people began fleeing north. The fever followed. When confirmed cases were reported in Memphis, 15,000 refugees fled towards Nashville. When word of the affliction preceded their arrival, notice was sent that the city of Nashville would harbor no refugees and those attempting to enter the city would suffer severe consequences.
Thomas Carlile, Chattanooga’s mayor in 1878, decided that something had be done. Learning that Nashville and other cities had refused to harbor the refugees, Mayor Carlile declared Chattanooga a haven for those fleeing and afraid. His city’s doors were open. Chattanooga’s climate was much too mild for an outbreak of Yellow Fever, the newspapers followed.
We were protected by our unique climate and the surrounding mountains. We had nothing to fear. Mayor Carlile quickly sent word to Chattanooga’s desperate neighbors offering refuge.Almost 500 arrived from Memphis in a matter of days.
Mayor Carlile saw no reason to have doctors examine these incoming refugees or to separate them from the local population. Instead, the mayor insisted that Chattanooga concentrate on raising money for the cities in the Mississippi valley and to open homes to the refugees who continued arriving daily.
Mrs. Carlile, the mayor’s wife, took to the city streets herself to ask for money. She went from merchant to merchant and from person to person on the city streets. Mrs. Carlile even went bravely into the bars and saloons down along the river bank and found Charity amongst the drunkards.
She was widely praised and the newspapers proudly told her tale. Chattanooga was a beacon of “Hope, Health and Charity,” they said, and because of so many acts such as those of Mrs. Carlile, Divine Providence would continue to uphold and strengthen this light on the hill.
But just a few days after the first refugees arrived a woman died. She was a Jewish woman who had fled Memphis. Her body was hastily buried and her clothing burned. Disturbed murmurs went through the city. Mayor Carlile repeated firmly that Yellow Fever would never become an epidemic in Chattanooga. The city’s climate would not allow it. This woman was sick when she arrived. There was nothing to fear.
Dr. R.N. Barr, a former Union Army surgeon who had treated Yellow Fever before, said the Mayor was a fool. Yellow Fever was here and he was insistent that quick action should be taken to protect Chattanooga from the virus. Death was on its way and the supposed Providence that was being so highly spoken of would soon prove to be a curse the likes of which the city had never seen. But Dr. Barr was laughed at, called a rabble-rouser and harshly admonished by city authorities. The doctor packed his belongings and fled the city.
“The air in the night is too cool here to allow the fever to spread,” the newspapers declared again. The Daily Times ran an editorial insisting that its reader not “fret yourselves into a fever. Above all, don’t rush about creating alarm among the weak and timid. Let us assure all that everything is being done that science, experience and prudence dictate to assure the health of the city, which is remarkably good; better than it has been at this time for many years. Excepting a few cases of the fever, there is absolutely no sickness. Shall our people run from a figment of imagination?”
So people stayed home and were thankful they lived in a place as safe as Chattanooga. The men in the saloons drank and laughed. Local children played in the streets with the refugee children and mothers went about their daily chores. Fathers continued to work and Mayor Carlisle rested in his mansion, smoked cigars and played billiards.
Then a local black man died. Then another. A little local boy died—this poor boy’s mother died after trying to nurse her child back to health. A healthy, thirty-five-year-old white bricklayer died. The skin of all the dead was yellow and Chattanooga panicked. It was here.A new message was sent to the refugees headed for the safe haven of Chattanooga:
A Severe Penalty for Offenders Against the Quarantine Ordinance.
To Refugees From Infected Points, or Points Against Which Chattanooga Has Quarantined:
Chattanooga cannot, and will not, harbor you. Our health and security must be preserved, and it is of the greatest importance to you not to start for this city, because you will in no case be admitted into the city limits.
If by any chance you should get in, and your identity should become known, which will surely be the case, you will be arrested and detained for fifteen days and suffer the severest penalty of the city ordinances.
And further, all parties in the city who may harbor such refugees will also be isolated and quarantined for ten days and fined.
This rule is absolute, and will not be suspended on any account.
By the end of summer, the death toll was unimaginable. People were dying in the streets. In this midst Father Patrick Ryan’s name arose. Those who were there remembered Father Ryan “going from house to house in the worst-infected section of the city to find what he could do for the sick refugees.”
Even after he came down with the disease himself and up until 48 hours before his own death he continued his work. In a postscript to the final letter he sent, Father Ryan wrote: “As I cannot live without ye, I will go and die with ye.”
On September 28, 1878, Father Patrick Ryan died. Two months later a heavy frost fell on the city and the disease was gone. I could find nothing more. For a man to be on the path to Sainthood, shouldn’t there be more?
So I went to look for him. I walked downtown Sunday morning. I followed the dark-haired woman into the Basilica. I saw his face there and stepped into the Nave.
When those doors closed behind me I was immersed in half-there organ music. Yellow light hung over the room. Stained glass windows rose to the ceiling and the morning shone through. The ceiling was domed eggshell white and Easter blue. I sat close to the door.
All around the altar before us were icons of women whose names I did not know. They touched their right hands to their hearts and looked down. One held a curly-haired boy whose small finger pointed upward. White flowers and green leaves of fern were in vases. Six white candles were lit on the altar.
A woman with her head covered in a white veil led two small boys down the aisle, one in each hand. A younger woman with plain hair was wrapped in a white cloth breast-feeding a quiet baby behind me.
Then another woman’s voice echoed through the room: “Welcome,” she said, “especially to the visitors of the Basilica. Today is the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time.”
Men in robes with their heads bowed filed in carrying incense from a metal chain.
This was no tent revival. In this place, God seemed a woman.
“Please stand,” the voice continued, “and give the sign of Peace to those around you.”
I stood as everyone else did. I turned holding my hat in my hands. The woman breast-feeding the child behind me remained seated but offered her hand. “Peace be with you,” she smiled. I took her hand and returned her smile.
A huge crucifix stood in the sanctuary down below. The crucified man’s stomach was sunken. His head hung down and his face was hidden. It occurred to me that if I were to go and stand at the altar before those women and this man I would see his face.
I could not stay there. While everyone was standing I went towards the door. On the wall was a large painting called “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus.” I saw Veronica wiping blood away from that face as I left.
Back outside the sky looked like rain. A friend of mine had told me weeks before that my search for Father Ryan might not turn out as I expected. I told him I didn’t expect anything, but that didn’t matter.
My friend quoted the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of Man.”
I heard thunder far off. I put my hat back on and hurried away.
Image Credits: photo of Father Patrick Ryan is from Sacred Heart Cathedral and presumed to in the public domain; photo of the Saint Peter And Paul Basilica was taken by Andrew Jameson via Wikipedia.org and is used under a Creative Commons license; photo of the grave marker from FindAGrave.com (added by Rev. Edward Steiner) is a promotional photo and considered Fair Use.