As the world has coped with the global pandemic in the last year, many have heard comparisons to the 1918 Influenza.  Roughly 675,000 American died of the 1918 flu between January of 1918 and April of 1920. Public health officials took a variety of measures that would seem very familiar to us today including closing businesses, indoor public gatherings, asking people to stay in their homes, and wearing masks to help combat the spread of the virus.  

For the Washington area, October of 1918 was a high point in this crisis as it was in the rest of the country. In early October, public health officials closed all public gathering spaces described as “churches, Sunday schools, moving picture theaters, bowling alleys, pool rooms, and other places where persons gather.” At the beginning of October, some Masses were celebrated outside either on porches or church steps or in school fields. But as the pandemic raged on, the makeshift hospitals filled, and so many people died that even outdoor services were canceled by the health officials.  For the 1918 pandemic it was very easy to see how many people were dying because the names, addresses and ages of each person were printed in a special column of the paper each day.  

An unknown sister nurses at Carney Hospital in Boston during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. (CNS photo/courtesy Daughters of Charity, Province of St. Louise)  

Cardinal James Gibbons, then the archbishop of Baltimore, was disappointed that saloons, markets, and other business where people congregate remained open, but that churches were being treated like “pest houses.”  Today similar arguments are being made across the country that businesses and venues remain open while churches are more heavily restricted.  Msgr. Cornelius Thomas, then the pastor of St Patrick’s Parish, was one of the most vocal pastors in the District of Columbia regarding that disparity during the 1918 pandemic.  With regard to the order of closure Msgr. Thomas stated, “As the order stands, the Catholic clergy will obey the order… Catholics regard attendance at Sunday Mass as a duty which non-Catholics do not understand or appreciate. Hence people must not think it amiss if we are prone to resent any undue infringement on our rights and liberties.” In view of the closing, Msgr. Thomas encouraged Catholics to read the Order of the Mass from their prayer books since they could not attend services in person.  

By the end of October when it was clear that cases were decreasing, Msgr. Thomas became more vocal about the continued closure of churches.  He wrote a letter to the commissioners of the District of Columbia that was also published in the Evening Star.  St. Patrick’s pastor spoke about how the shops and business were all open and full and requested that the Commission President, Louis Brownlow, rescind his closure of churches order by Nov. 1, 1918, All Saint’s Day.  If the order was not changed, Msgr. Thomas said that the churches would explore their legal options.  As both the number of cases and the death rate had decreased by the end of the October, Commissioner Brownlow and the D.C. Health Officer, Dr. Fowler, lifted the order, and churches and businesses that had closed were allowed to open again.  

Luckily, there was no further resurgence of influenza that winter.  The influenza virus they were dealing with behaved very differently than SARS-COV-2, the virus currently affecting our world today. Throughout the country, roughly 195,000 Americans died in October of 1918, the month in which the all churches were closed in the Washington area.

(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)