Wednesday, September 10, 2008


September 9 marked the Episcopal feast day for Sister Constance and Her Companions, a day celebrated by the Anglican Sisters of St. Mary, Sewanee. It’s an important celebration for the Sisters of St. Mary as Sister Constance belonged to the order of St. Mary in Memphis, Tennessee. Sister Constance and her companions – three Anglican nuns and two priests, as well as Roman Catholic clergy and a group of prostitutes who wanted to help out– died during the worst yellow fever epidemic of the 19th century in Memphis. When this epidemic struck, Sister Constance and her companions stayed behind to nurse the sick and dying and ultimately succumbed to yellow fever. They’re known as “the martyrs of Memphis,” and, yesterday morning, the altar hangings, stole, and the Rev. Dr. Suzanna Metz’s chasuble blazed with deep red fabric. However, the Anglican nuns of St. Mary, Sewanee, were dressed in their customary blue jumpers and white blouses and presented what I call “a cloud of blue angels.”

After the celebratory mass, the sisters were accidentally called to follow in the footsteps of their mentor, Sister Constance, when a visiting Associate fell on the concrete steps leading past the rose garden and injured his head. Blankets, pillows, towels, water, and a dusty mat from the carport were whisked to the scene of the fall by three of the Sisters while two of them who are RNs attended the Associate. It was an upsetting occasion, but I did gain a firsthand glimpse of the team spirit of the members of this Community of St. Mary before the ambulance arrived. “If I become ill, anywhere, I’d like to have that cloud of blue angel healers and protectors attending me,” I told Sister Lucy, Mother Superior of the St. Mary Convent, who stood beside me. Sister Lucy just nodded. She’s a legend herself and known on the Cumberland Plateau and in the Valley as an outstanding teacher, priest, cattle raiser, gardener, retreat leader, and advocate of the poor. Sister Lucy now has sight problems but she can still preach a profound homily, sans notes, and always provides a lot of take-home inspiration.

‘Seems as though some unseen force called upon the Sisters of St. Mary to observe the occasion of the feast day of Sister Constance to carry out the concluding phrase of the prayer for this feast day: “…Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need…”

The events of yesterday morning reminded me of one of my poems in JUST PASSING THROUGH, published last year, here at Sewanee:


This “trifle” called mercy,
a moan in the heart,
fills the region with wry pain
again and again;
diners feed humbly,
eating unleavened morsels,
gaining grand energy
to save the world
with this “trifle” called mercy,
the same diners
at the busy table,
asking for sacrifice.

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