Spanish Flu of 1918: The story behind the grotto

By Carolyn Phelan, For Today’s Catholic

A major influenza pandemic spread across the globe in 1918, killing over 50 million people. Some estimates put that number at closer to 100 million. Often called the Spanish Flu, it infected about 500 million people worldwide — about a third of the population of the planet at that time. Citizens were ordered to wear masks; schools, theaters and businesses were shuttered. Lasting from spring 1918 to early summer 1919, World War I ended midway through the pandemic, with more U.S. soldiers dying from the flu than were killed in battle.

It was most deadly for ages 20-40, unlike the “common” flu (generally harder on the elderly and the young), and infected 28 per cent of all Americans, killing over 675,000 in this country alone. At that time there were no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections, so to control the spread the government used isolation, quarantine, disinfectants and limitations on public gatherings. Sound familiar?  

In 1918, however, these methods were applied erratically and did not prove very satisfactory. Crowded living arrangements and extremely poor hygiene in that period worsened the situation, and movements of soldiers in the war also contributed greatly to the world-wide spread. Hospitals were already stretched thin due to mass casualties from the war, plus many American physicians were with the troops, leaving medical students to care for the influenza patients. 

Americans were told to avoid crowded places and other people, not to shake hands, to stay indoors, avoid touching library books and wear masks to cover their noses and mouths. Home remedies included eating cinnamon and drinking wine or beef broth.

The Record of Interments from Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in New Braunfels from 1918 and 1919 shows the first parish influenza death occurred September 24, 1918 and the last directly attributed to influenza, May 10, 1919. On a single page, 17 of 23 deaths were from influenza. In October and November, several parishioners were lost each week.

There are 38 parishioners listed as succumbing to influenza and buried directly by the church, with seven more known parish deaths undocumented, bringing the total to 45. Of those lost, there were 11 infants and children under 10 years, nine teens, 10 in their twenties, six in their thirties, a 45-year-old and a 69-year-old. This trend likely modeled the death rate in Comal County as a whole.

The Aug. 23, 1918 edition of the New Braunfels Herald reported the parish school planning to open on-time in the fall, but by the Oct. 18 edition, schools, churches and “picture shows” had been ordered closed on October 14, and “larger public gatherings of all kinds restricted, until health conditions change to the better.” Sunday church services re-opened November 3, with schools re-opening November 4.

An October article related how Fredericksburg and Gillespie County handled the flu, reporting: “public gatherings, such as church meetings, lodge and society meetings, picture shows, dances, etc., be disposed with, that all schools of Gillespie County be closed.” Children were to be kept at home and parents told “not to allow their children to mingle with other children; all until further notice, to guard against infection.” Much of this sounds so familiar today, 102 years later.

Articles used catchy slogans on preventing the spread of influenza, such as: “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases” and “Practice the three C’s: A Clean Mouth, a Clean Skin and Clean Bowels.” People were advised to exercise in the fresh air, practice cleanliness and eat simple food, such as broths, milk, buttermilk and ice-cream “to keep up a patient’s strength and vitality”and to:“Avoid crowds, coughs and cowards, but fear neither germs nor Germans!” 

By November, influenza was in everystate in the Union, with both civil and military authorities warning the public to take every precaution to prevent its spread. Schools, churches and theatres were closed in many cities and public gatherings of all kinds forbidden. The old adage, An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” was popular. 

A final article noted “a drug with promise,” Tanlac, billed as containing “the very elements needed by the system to give you fighting strength and ward off the influenza germ.” A prominent south Texas physician’s letter in the local paper touted this “wonderful constructive tonic,” encouraging people to try it. Tanlac was “in short supply,” but “sold in New Braunfels by R. B. Richter.”

 The pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul at the time of the Spanish Flu was Father J.M.J. Wack, originally from Lorraine, France, who served the parish from 1889-1923. He led the parishioners in a solemn vow, promising the Blessed Mother to build a replica of the grotto at Lourdes if there would be no more influenza deaths in the parish. Their petition was granted. Not another parishioner died from the disease. 

In fulfillment of the vow, Father Wack went to Lourdes, France, around 1920 to obtain exact specifications for the grotto, which stone mason J.J. Scholz came all the way from Nebraska to build. Its honeycomb rock came from parishioners’ ranches. Flint was taken from the parish grounds and the old hospital site, now the parking lot for the school and thrift store. Parishioners worked through the spring building the grotto under Scholz’s direction, and their names were sealed in a can secured below its altar stone. On the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29, 1921, Bishop Arthur Jerome Drossaerts celebrated the grotto’s dedication and the investiture of Father Wack as domestic prelate. 

Take a few moments to visit this beautiful grotto and say a prayer for those who lost their lives in the Spanish Flu pandemic, especially our parishioners. Say a prayer of thanksgiving for Father Wack and those parishioners who made that solemn vow and then worked so hard to build the grotto. Finally, say a prayer for our world and our parish as we experience yet another pandemic; that we may be strong together as we move forward to heal.

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