Sister Constance and Her Companions, the “Martyrs of Memphis”: text of a sermon preached at Saint Mary’s Convent, Sewanee
For the gospel: John 12:24-28
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24)
I rather imagine that most of you know better than I and in more detail the story of the group of young women who in 1865, with the support of Bishop Potter of New York and some clergy, were constituted as the first formal Anglican religious order in the Americas—the Community of Saint Mary; and the story of Sister Constance who, after consultation between Bishop Quintard of Tennessee and the Community of Saint Mary, was sent to Memphis in 1873 to establish and be in charge of a full-scale foundation of the Community and an orphan’s home, together with Sisters Amelia and Thecla, and the novice Sister Hughetta. Sister Constance was then aged 28. The sisters worked in Memphis for a number of years and when there was an outbreak of Yellow Fever there in 1873 they nursed many through the sickness or supported them as they died.
In 1878, after four years of hard and faithful work and service in Memphis, Sister Constance and her companions were sent for rest and retreat to the motherhouse in Peekskill north of New York. It was then, while they were at Peekskill, that Memphis was again struck by an epidemic of yellow fever, much more virulent than the first. Sister Constance and the others immediately went back to nurse and care for the sick and dying. In the weeks that followed most of them were killed by the fever, together with Roman Catholic sisters who were also in Memphis and some Anglican and Roman Catholic priests. The first to die, on 9th September 1878, was Sister Constance. Her last words were, “Alleluia. Hosanna.”
These are the people whom we call, “the Martyrs of Memphis.”
What is a martyr? The word means, of course, “witness.” And in the tradition of the church we have come to call those people “martyrs” in a special sense who “witness” even to the giving up of their lives—whose lives and deaths bear witness therefore to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the continuing grace and power of God through Christ in the world.
A true martyrdom, as T. S. Eliot points out to us in Archbishop Thomas’ Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral, is never a human design: for true martyrs are those who have become instruments of God, who have lost their will in the will of God, and who no longer desire anything for themselves, not even the glory of being martyrs. Our Lord says at one point in the gospel, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18). In their smaller way, true martyrs may say the same. Always remember, Constance and her Companions did not have to return to Memphis in 1878. They had already nursed people through one epidemic. No one would have thought less of them if they had now stayed where they were. They had surely paid their dues! Indeed, many no doubt thought Constance was mad for going back to Memphis and taking others with her, even as many in the 1870s thought her and her companions mad or mendacious for wanting to be nuns at all. Let us never forget the degree of abuse those Anglican women went through in the nineteenth century for feeling called to be part of a religious order. Still others, when the women died at their posts, perhaps shook their heads and said, “What a waste! They could have done so much good in their lives if only they’d been more sensible.” And yet, as Our Lord says in this morning’s gospel, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Our Lord continues, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). The language of “love” and “hate” at this point is, of course, Semitic hyperbole: but the meaning is clear. If our life consists in gathering to ourselves things perishable—power and possessions—we perish with them. Insofar as we divest ourselves of those and commit to things eternal—to the Pauline trio of “faith, hope and love”—we prepare ourselves for eternity. Our Lord adds, “Whoever serves me, the Father will honour” (John 12:26). Of Sister Constance and those other faithful sisters of the Order of Saint Mary who died with her, Morgan Dix wrote, “Before the memorable year 1878, many spoke against these faithful and devoted women; but after that year, the tongue of calumny was silent, while men looked on with beating hearts, and eyes dim with tears.”
We give thanks to God for blessed Constance and Her Companions.
And now let us confess the faith, her faith and ours, as the church has taught us.