The Province’s First Pandemic

Dominic Monti, OFM Features

With our lives and ministries deeply affected in recent months by the coronavirus, several folks have asked me, as the unofficial historian of the Province, to write about the impact on Holy Name Province of the great influenza pandemic of 1918-20. Luckily, someone has already done this. Daniel Dwyer, OFM, of Siena College, published a well-researched article on that topic in the 2019 issue of The Provincial Annals, beginning on page 45.

The monastery at Paterson, New Jersey. (Photo courtesy of Tom Cole)

In light of that, I see the purpose of this article as focusing on some highlights of Dan’s research as well as developing one of the consequences of that epidemic. Also, I’d like to share this important episode of our history with newsletter readers who do not have access to our Annals. I am dependent, not solely on Dan’s work, but on a fine article by the late Lambert Zaleha, OFM, the last surviving witness of those years –“My Novitiate Was Different,” published in The Provincial Annals in 1979.

First, a few words about the pandemic itself. The particular strain of influenza (H1N1 influenza A virus) responsible for the epidemic first made its appearance in January 1918. It spread rapidly worldwide, ultimately infecting some 500 million people over the next year and a half, about a third of the world’s population. Despite its common name, the “Spanish flu,” evidence points that, in fact, the strain likely originated in the United States; this country, with a population of about 100 million people at the time, would suffer some 650,000 deaths from the flu.

It is interesting to note that most of the friars in the Province who died from the flu were not part of the most virulent wave of infections, the second one, in the fall of 1918 (195,000 Americans died in October alone!), but of a smaller, third wave from January to April of 1919, that would subside by that summer. That fact is instructive for us to still exercise caution as our country “reopens” now after the last several months of restrictions.

Another point to bring out is an odd peculiarity of that strain of flu: besides children under five and the elderly — the populations that would normally be the most affected — this virus also attacked otherwise previously healthy young people between the ages of 20 and 40, who normally would be the most resistant to this type of illness. This fact turned out to be devastating for the younger friars of the Province.

Demographics of the Province 100 Years Ago
A century ago, Holy Name Province had many younger members. It had been established in September 1901, comprising 67 friars from the American commissariat of the St. Elizabeth Province of Thuringia, based in Paterson, New Jersey, and 46 English-language friars belonging to the Custody of the Immaculate Conception, then based at St. Bonaventure’s College in Allegany, New York. For the first dozen years of its existence, the new province grew slowly – two or three novices a year — but then larger classes began entering its new minor seminary in Callicoon, New York, who then went on to the novitiate, resulting in a larger number of young friars in training. In 1919, there were only 79 ordained priests in the Province, but some 40 “clerics,” or newly professed friars studying for ordination, when six years earlier there had been only 20. These 40 student friars were divided between St. Stephen Friary in Croghan, New York, for two years of philosophical training, and St. Bonaventure Monastery in Paterson, for four years of theological education. In addition, Paterson also housed the novitiate, making it the largest community in the Province.

Many friars in the Province caught the flu at some point during the pandemic, but it would be Paterson that became its epicenter during its third wave in the spring of 1919. Dan Dwyer’s research, however, revealed that there was one death in the Province caused by flu in the Province prior to the devastating Paterson outbreak which has gone by unnoticed until now – probably because it took place overseas. This was Leo Brophy who has a very brief entry in our necrology on Sept. 18.

Dan’s detective work on and in newspaper records shows that Leo was probably 27 years old, not 18, when he died. He was a native of New Jersey, likely the William Brophy born in Great Notch, Passaic County, on Oct. 10, 1890 (not 1899 as stated in our records). The family moved to Paterson where William attended St. Bonaventure School and then got a job at a machine works business in the city. He decided to join the friars and was received as a tertiary brother in January 1918. Apparently because canonically he was still a layman and thus subject to the draft, he was inducted into the Army in July. Shipped overseas in August, he was there less than a month before he caught the flu and died Sept. 18 in a French hospital.

But it was in Paterson the following spring where the flu hit the hardest. As Lambert recalled: “Cramped living conditions undoubtedly contributed to the rapid spread of the flu at Paterson. Fifty-eight friars – 14 priests, 24 clerics, 10 brothers, and 10 novices — were crowded into a building designed to accommodate a much smaller number.” (The monastery at that time was a good deal smaller than the building most of us older friars recall, which was torn down in 1983; a large addition with 39 more bedrooms would be opened in 1930.) At any rate, as Lambert tells us, “Forty-two members of the community eventually contracted the disease and, in the 19-day period between March 27 and April 14, five of that number died.”

Richard Flanagan. (Photo courtesy of the Provincial archive)

The first to die was Richard Flanagan, OFM, 27 at the time, who had been ordained to the priesthood for less than a year, and, in fact, was a ‘simplex’ still completing his course of theology. On Saturday, March 23, 1919, he was scheduled to go to St. Paul’s Parish in Clifton, New Jersey, for a weekend call. Since Richard was running a slight fever, he was advised by Andrew Wenning, OFM, the infirmarian, to stay home. But Richard laughed it off and headed out. However, shortly after arriving in Clifton, he collapsed and took to bed. A doctor was called and, despite his best efforts, Richard’s condition worsened; he died in the Clifton rectory on Thursday evening, March 27.

Two days later, Edmund Killian, OFM, also 27, a deacon, passed away. A native of Livingston Manor, New York, in Sullivan County, which is not far from Callicoon, he had attended the seminary there and was due to be ordained a priest later in 1919. Soon after contracting the flu, he had been admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson where he then developed pneumonia. Lambert recalled, “A little before 10 in the evening of March 29, he expired in the arms of Lawrence Bultmann, OFM, pastor of St. Bonaventure Parish, who himself had recently recovered from an attack of the flu contracted while ministering to his parishioners.”

Norbert Moore. (Photo courtesy of the Provincial archive)

The next friar to die within a period of five days, Norbert Moore, OFM, 27, was also a deacon and a classmate of Edmund. He was a native of Bolivar, not far from St. Bonaventure’s College in Allegany, and had attended Niagara University before entering Callicoon. He was regarded as one of the brightest students in theology and died on March 31, only 10 days after having contracted the flu. His last words were, “It is good to be able to die a Franciscan.”

The day before Norbert died, he gave a box of cigars to Terence McNally, OFM, that he had received as a gift. Terry was one of the few members of the community who escaped contracting the disease and proved himself heroic in his efforts to nurse the sick. In gratitude for his service, Terry was the first novice ever given permission to smoke!

On April 5, Lawrence Bultmann was again called to St. Joseph’s Hospital to be at the bedside of his classmate, Leonard Heckman, OFM. The 38-year old Leonard was born in Guetersloh, North Rhine-Westphalia in 1881. At the age of 16, he volunteered for the Fulda Province’s mission in the United States in 1897, following in the footsteps of his brother, Ferdinand Heckman, OFM, who had come to the U.S. several years earlier. Leonard was received into the Order in Paterson in 1899 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1908. At the time of the epidemic, he was pastor of St. Leo’s Church in East Paterson, which later became Elmwood Park.

John Joseph O’Connell. (Photo courtesy of the Provincial archives)

The final death that spring was John Joseph O’Connell, OFM, 28. A native of Antrim, near Wellsboro, Tioga County, Pennsylvania, he graduated from St. Bonaventure College in the class of 1913. After teaching in his home county for a couple of years, he had returned to St Bonaventure for his master’s degree, which he earned in 1916, before entering the Order the following summer. Because of his strong background in philosophy, he was allowed to start theology immediately after his profession in 1918. As his condition became more serious, John Joseph was admitted to St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark, where he died on April 19. In accordance with his request, his body was returned to St. Bonaventure for burial.

Aftermath of Pandemic
Another member of the Paterson community, Benedict Boeing, OFM, had been stricken hard with the flu in March and April — although he survived, his system was severely compromised. He never fully recovered and died the following year, July 3, 1920.

At 50, Benedict was the oldest of those who lost their lives to the flu pandemic of 1918. He was born in Borken, Germany, close to the Dutch border, in 1870 and entered the Order in Fulda in 1888 shortly after the anti-clerical Kulturkampf legislation was lifted. He came over to the American foundation the following year. After his ordination in 1894, he began teaching theology to the clerics, which he did until his death. A serious, idealistic friar highly regarded by his confreres, he was elected to the Provincial Council several times.

The remaining friars of the Paterson community counted themselves fortunate. As Lambert recalled: “[Our superiors] realized that under the circumstances, each member of the community needed the support of all his brothers. Mathias Faust, OFM, then novice master, was aware that the level of fraternity we novices experienced in the crisis situation of which we were a part was a lesson in Franciscanism we would never forget.”

But besides the tragic loss of five promising young friars and the profound lesson in fraternity-in-action, the great flu had a very concrete consequence: the Province decided to move its house of theology to Washington, D.C. In the chapter of 1919, just months after the pandemic swept through Paterson, Mathias was elected provincial. The new administration decided to deal immediately with the crowded situation in Paterson by sending its theology students in the fall to St. Bonaventure’s College and Seminary in Allegany. As we will see, this move was always considered a temporary solution. From the perspective of Franciscan formation, there was the fear that young friars could absorb a basically clerical orientation from the diocesan seminarians, rather than the values of Franciscan religious life. Also, many in the leadership of the Province felt that the lifestyle of the Irish-dominated friar community at St. Bonaventure was too easy-going, in contrast to their own more rigorous German Recollect tradition.

“Old” Holy Name College, in Washington, was built in 1930. (Photo courtesy of Jim McIntosh)

Instead, another solution was envisioned: building a new house of studies in Washington, D.C. Mathias wrote to the friars of the Province in December 1919 to communicate this decision: “Upon the recommendation, or rather command, of our Most Rev. Father General [Serafino Cimino, OFM], we have decided to build a house of studies in Washington, which will be designed to accommodate our students for generations to come.” The following year, 1920, the Province purchased 35 acres from the Commissariat of the Holy Land on which to construct the new facility.

However, our friar theology students would remain at St. Bonaventure’s for 11 more years. Other construction projects always seemed to take precedence throughout the 1920s. It would not be until 1930 that work began on Holy Name College. Construction moved quickly and the impressive new building would be dedicated at Christmas time that year. The completion of the new facility was fortuitous because the friary and seminary at St. Bonaventure had burned to the ground in May of that year.

As we remember our brothers who died in the great pandemic 101 years ago, we also should remember that a lasting consequence of that tragic event was the decision to move to Washington, D.C., which would be the setting of our Province’s theological training for the next eight decades.

Dominic Monti served as Provincial Vicar of the Province from 2005 to 2014 and is currently a distinguished professor of Franciscan research at St. Bonaventure University in Western New York. The Bradford, Pennsylvania, native professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 1965.