“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Mark Twain may have never uttered this aphorism. But if he didn’t, he should have.

Archbishop Sebastian G. Messmer closed down public Masses in the fall of 1918 in the wake of the Influenza pandemic. (Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee)

Our current pandemic is in many ways very different from the lethal influenza of 1918. But the experience of quarantine is the same, at least for us here in Milwaukee. In particular, then as today, our churches and schools were shuttered for a time. Fear of contagion and death stalked the households of the people of the archdiocese. The Church did what it could to help the community cope with these events, which only compounded the anxiety many already felt over their sons and daughters during World War I. The author is himself quarantined and cannot get to archives and records that can provide a more detailed story. Even in online sources, there are discrepancies of events and dates. For the bulk of this article, I relied primarily on the only Catholic paper in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee at the time, the Catholic Citizen.

Even today, there is disagreement over the origins of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Some say it began in rural Kansas and was spread by American soldiers sent to Europe. Others suggest various other countries were the home of “patient zero”: England, France, and China. It certainly did not start in Spain, but the Spanish press, not under war-time censorship, reported its effects most clearly. The virus was named the “Spanish Influenza” although France and England had more cases.

Wherever it began, it was lethal, killing more than 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States. It had two outbreaks. It first appeared in the spring of 1918 and took its toll on American troops stationed in Europe. This first outbreak subsided and people relaxed. But by September 1918, it came to the United States with a vengeance and began laying waste to the population at large.

In September, the Catholic Citizen warned its readers “the so-called Spanish Influenza” would “strike us and authorities agree that we shall not be escape it.” The Citizen went on to describe the symptoms and effects of the flu, culminating in a ghastly pneumonia that inevitably led to death. The paper noted erroneously that the “young and healthy” could escape “serious consequences.” Milwaukee reported its first cases in late September 1918, maybe brought by soldiers from military installations in Illinois.

But as time went on, the impact of this second wave of influenza became more ominous. The paper reported that at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky “everything … is at a standstill … on account of many cases of influenza.” He noted there were no public masses in the Knight of Columbus buildings set up to minister to U.S. troops. He also related that 14 sisters from “Sacred Heart Home … and St. Joseph’s Infirmary” in the Louisville archdiocese were sent to care for the sick.

With the appearance of the flu in September 1918 and its spread from the port cities to the interior, Wisconsin took some of the most draconian steps to stop the growing rate of infection. On Oct. 10, 1918, State Health Officer Dr. Cornelius Harper ordered the closure of schools, taverns, public entertainments, and churches in Wisconsin. Factories, offices and workplaces were exempted. Local public health officials implemented these orders.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee responded quickly. Archbishop Sebastian G. Messmer sent a message to the priests of the archdiocese closing all churches and schools. “There will no public services in our churches, Sundays or weekdays. The main doors of the church will be locked.” He forbade the ringing of church bells, except the Angelus. Funerals and marriages could be performed “with a low Mass provided only near relatives of the party are present.” He also canceled Confirmations. All public and parochial schools were closed.

Throughout Wisconsin, the other dioceses followed suit. Dioceses generally followed the direction of public health officials. Oddly, the huge archdioceses of New York and nearby Chicago did not close religious institutions. In the Windy City, churches were considered “essential services” and remained open. Some priests complained about the closures, insisting that “pool halls, bowling alleys and dance halls” were “open as usual.” (Not true.) But the editor of the Catholic Citizen observed that the churches were closed “because this is the first time the world through the advance of medical science knows the ways and methods of Mr. Microbe. We may know even more a generation hence … meanwhile, wash your hands before eating.”

The toll among Catholics is hard to discern. We do have the names of some priests who died. Fr. John Zwadzich, an assistant pastor at Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Milwaukee, was taken ill while saying Mass and died of influenza-induced pneumonia. Fr. John Taual, the pastor of St. Wenceslaus on Scott Street, died Nov. 26, 1918. The 41-year-old priest had been at this church since 1916. Fr. Charles Grobschmidt, the 63-year-old pastor of Holy Ghost Church on Milwaukee’s south side, also passed on. He was “known for his eloquence and force as a speaker and his kindness and sympathy.”

The sisters’ communities stepped up to tend the sick. The popular history of St. Mary’s Hospital noted that it was “the first hospital in the city to admit the contagious victims.” The Daughters of Charity, who ran the hospital, put up cots in corridors and sun rooms to accommodate the sick. They also cared for orphan girls at St. Rose’s Orphanage. A number of the sisters became sick and “several tragically died.” This was likely the case with all the sisters who ran hospitals and cared for the sick in their homes or in the protective institutions of the archdiocese. The records of the sisters’ communities will offer more instances of their work and their losses during this period.

The influenza began to abate somewhat by the end of the year. Dates vary, but by late November, there may have been some mitigation of the closures in Milwaukee, allowing some limited reopening of institutions. Archbishop Messmer became confident enough to resume Confirmations in rural churches. However, another flare of infections closed things down again. Relief came gradually for the churches. On Dec. 21, the Catholic Citizen printed a message from Messmer gradually re-opening urban churches but insisting that parishioners “occupy alternate seats” (social distancing) and that priests keep “the service short.” By Jan. 4, 1919, the influenza ban had been lifted and schools reopened.

Saint Francis Seminary, which had sent students home, reopened Jan. 6, 1919, the Feast of the Epiphany. All the students returned except a few “detailed at their homes by sickness.” The Citizen gratefully noted, “The seminary has escaped the epidemic … not one case of sickness has occurred.”

Not every Catholic in Wisconsin was as lucky as the seminarians. In older cemeteries, the many grave markers inscribed with death dates of 1918-19 give witness to the pandemic’s toll in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, thousands were infected (30,000 alone in Milwaukee), and between 8,500 and 9,000 people died from the influenza (500 in Milwaukee County, 115 in Fond du Lac County, 295 in Racine County, and 207 in Sheboygan County.) In churches, the sad strains of the “Dies Irae” were heard frequently as priests, sisters, and beloved parish members met the end of their days.