This spring, media outlets recounted how leadership decisions affected two cities during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Philadelphia was hit hard — the city’s infection rate soared after its public health director allowed a large parade to take place weeks after the city experienced a rise in cases.

At first, seminary life in Philadelphia seemed to go on as usual. At Lutheran Theological Seminary (now part of United Lutheran Seminary), the October 1918 Philadelphia Seminary Bulletin reported that with only seven cases on campus, the school had been “exceedingly fortunate thus far in escaping almost unscathed the ravages of the terrible epidemic.” Two dozen seminarians volunteered to dig graves at nearby Ivy Hill Cemetery. But in the following month, 11,000 Philadelphians lost their lives. More than 50 students from the nearby Catholic seminary, St. Charles Borromeo, served as orderlies and clerks at understaffed local hospitals, and another 200 students helped dig graves at cemeteries.

In St. Louis, the public health commissioner closed many public places two days after the first cases. Concordia Seminary, a Lutheran theological school, was largely spared, according to the student magazine, Alma Mater. But the following issue included a startling update: a second wave led to a dozen cases on campus after Thanksgiving.

“We managed as best we could until the Faculty and the Board decided to close the Seminary until January 6, 1919,” the magazine reported. Healthy Concordia seminarians returned home until they could safely be called back; the sick stayed behind. On December 5, Homer August Kern, a student who had remained, succumbed to influenza-related pneumonia. The January–February issue of Alma Mater published the poignant remembrances of his classmates. “He was always cheerful, good-natured, a live wire, brimful of energy and enthusiasm in the lecture as well as on the basket-ball floor. His memory will remain with all who knew him.”

CATHOLIC HISTORICAL RESEARCH CENTER OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF PHILADELPHIA

Students from Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia bury victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic. In the fall of the year, more than 200 Saint Charles seminarians volunteered at cemeteries around the city.

 


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