A media statement issued by the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference in mid-April detailed some of the many pastoral works carried out by Catholic agencies and individuals during the lockdown.
Such initiatives are worthy of high praise. It is good that they are recorded and will in due course be remembered and reflected upon. Such recording has happened before and it has enabled reflection many years later. This is not the first time Catholic agencies have swung into action during a pandemic that has blighted our shores.
Examples of Catholic generosity and sacrifice during the terrible 1918 influenza pandemic that claimed some 9000 lives in this country were noted in articles and exhibitions held to mark 100 years since those dark days. To the fore in the Catholic response were religious sisters.
In Wellington, the Sisters of Compassion responded to the call for volunteers and nursed the sick at Island Bay, Berhampore and at a temporary hospital at St Patrick’s College in Wellington, where two dormitories were used.
According to a Compassion Sisters’ account 100 years later, “the hospital was open for one month. There were 48 beds, and the sisters and volunteers nursed 91 men of every denomination. 54 survived and 37 died. Many of the sisters contracted influenza and during their illness meals were provided by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.”.
One Compassion Sister, a Sister Natalie, contracted influenza while visiting her brother. She died from the illness.
In Auckland, at the direction of Bishop Cleary, two schools on Vermont Street became temporary hospitals, fully equipped by Auckland Catholics. A recent article in the Ponsonby News stated: “By November, when the epidemic was clearly on the wane, the Vermont Street hospital had admitted 254 patients, 85 of whom died. The Sisters of Mercy worked calmly and cheerfully as long as there were sick to care for, and they were lauded by the secular press as an example to other women in a desperate request for volunteers. The sisters weren’t concerned with public recognition, just continuing their work as long as they were needed . . . .”
It has been observed that many of the patients in such places had never had contact with Catholic sisters before, and the experience did much to reduce the ignorance and religious prejudice that was widespread at the time.
Of course, there were losses in the Catholic community too. The most prominent was Bishop Michael Verdon, the Bishop of Dunedin, who succumbed to the disease which he had contracted after a visit to Auckland. He died in Wellington on November 22, 1918. Four years later, it is said that the same influenza claimed the life of Pope Benedict XV.
One bishop whose role was noted in New Zealand was Bishop Henry Cleary of Auckland, referred to earlier. The Ponsonby News article stated that it came to light later that Bishop Cleary had offered every Catholic school in his diocese for use as temporary hospitals.
“He himself was indefatigable,” the article stated, “transporting the sick in his own car, assisting at their bedsides, taking a turn in the kitchen and reverently attending the dead.”
In our time, the work of the Church will not come to an end when there are no more alert levels.
Relations between individuals and communities are likely to come under strain as people feel the bite of hardship in the years ahead.
The Church can play various roles here too, not only in giving assistance to those impacted by the economic downturn, but in helping improve relations between groups in our multicultural society.
A recent article in the UK Tablet noted that, in the 14th century, it was common to blame the Black Death catastrophe in Europe on Jews. Pope Clement VI condemned this – and the pogroms associated with it – and called on bishops and priests to protect Jewish people.
As the Tablet article concluded: “The present epidemic . . . reminds us that the announcement of the Good News and the call to love one another should be constantly renewed.”