Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Life in the time of Cholera

When it kills, cholera does so with astonishing quickness. From the moment symptoms appeared --excessive diarrhea and vomiting, sunken eyes in a blueish face--till the moment those eyes closed forever was often a matter of hours. You knew you had it once it manifested itself. On board steam ships like the St. Ange—coming up the Missouri in 1851, some lived and some died.

Once the contagion was recognized for what it was aboard the St. Ange, the steamer pulled over at the mouth of the Little Sioux River.

Two Roman Catholic priests of eminent stature, Belgian born but trained and dedicated to mission work among Native people. Both had notable records of selflessness, but only one would do more.

Father Pierre-Jean De Smet left footprints throughout the West. Aboard the St. Ange, suddenly, DeSmet, was stricken so fiercely he thought he would die. His face had grown sunken and gray, even blue. His body emptied all its fluids, his strength was gone. With what little he had left, he called on his friend and colleague, Father Christian Hoecken, to administer last rites, extreme unction.

Father Christian Hoecken was called, by some, "the Kickapoo Father" because of his ministry to the Kickapoo tribe, who'd been pushed west from their homelands in Indiana, first to Missouri, and then to Kansas. The word kickapoo may mean "he who moves from here to there," but make no mistake: the Kickapoos in Kansas were refugees.

But he didn't stay. In 1838, 800 Potawatomi had been herded from the Great Lakes region to Kansas on that tribe's own "Trail of Tears." Only 650 arrived--some simply disappeared, went to Canada or returned home in hiding, and 30 men, women, and children died. Father Hoecken ministered was there to welcome the Potawatomi refugees.

Once again Hoecken learned languages so quickly that the church determined he should continue to use those skills with the Nez Perce, farther up the northern Missouri regions, a people as yet without a mission. That's where he was going on June 19, 1851, when he was suddenly called to the bedside of his dear friend Father De Smet to hear his confession and administer last rites, all of which he did, tears coursing down his cheeks, some say. De Smet wasn't the only one dying aboard the St. Ange. Father Hoecken consoled many who'd contacted the cholera on board, or so history says.

On September 20, the St. Ange had stopped somewhere near Blackbird Bend to try to rid themselves of the contagion, "to take better care of the sick and to bury the dead," or so wrote the German artist Rudolf Kurz in his diary.

In just a couple of hours, the story reversed itself. Father De Smet seemed to recover, at least enough to hear Father Hoecken's confession and administer last rites to him because in a matter of two hours Father Hoecken had fallen victim to the same dreaded cholera.

Here's how Kurz describes what happened:

June 21. Father Van Hocken is dead. He died as a Christian. Had been sick only two hours. It was about 4 o'clock in the morning when I was awakened by his calling me. I found him, half-dressed, on his bed in violent convulsions. I called Father De Smet. We anchored in the evening and buried him by torchlight.
The story of cholera in the region is far, far bigger. Cholera took thousands of victims in many more places, whole tribes of first nations in unthinkable outbreaks of pestilence.

But this story is somehow unique, full of memorable images. One, to me, doesn't leave--a crowd of mourners, some of them ill, standing with bowed heads in prayer, only their outlines visible in the jumpy torchlight, all of them standing on the banks of the Missouri, dropping a casket rough hewn from the woods behind them into freshly dug river sand, burying a man some of them might well have considered a saint.

It happened not all that far away aboard a steamer coming up the river, a steamer named the "Holy Angel."

Without a doubt, Father DeSmet walked away grieving when he left his friend’s body on the banks of the Missouri River. But he also walked away with immunity; and when, farther up the river, cholera broke out among the Native people, he ministered to their horror, bringing love and life to hundreds of people, people who never forgot his concern and his care, people who always remembered his love.

Among them, the Fool Soldiers, who risked their lives so that others might live.

1 comment:

Ron Polinder said...

These are incredible stories--thanks for doing the research and the writing. Amidst all the tragedy and atrocity, there were still authentic Christians who lived out the gospel. Those stories need to be told along side the painful ones.