SVC History: the 1918 influenza pandemic

By Luke Mich

This is not the first time that the campus has been closed over health concerns for its students, staff, professors, and the Benedictines. Over a century ago, the Spanish flu brought a similar problem that shut down Saint Vincent as well as other colleges schools across the state.

Brother Xavier O’Mara, who found some of the Saint Vincent journals from the time of that epidemic, noted one article that detailed how Saint Vincent was affected in Jerome Oetgen’s Mission to America: A History of Saint Vincent Archabbey, the First Benedictine Monastery in the United States.

A large camp that functioned as a hospital site in Europe to treat United States soldiers stricken with the influenza. The influenza originated in Spain during World War I and spread to the United States through the soldiers as they returned to their country. (Source: Politico)

According to the article, “the deadly Spanish influenza […] arrived at Saint Vincent in the fall of 1918 and lasted for nearly three months. The college and seminary administrations sent students home in October 1918, at the height of the epidemic, and did not allow them to return to the campus until shortly before Thanksgiving (November 22).”

Additionally, the article mentions the physical toll the influenza had on the campus.

“[More] than a third of the monks were confined to their beds,” the article states. And those that didn’t contract it were assigned to care for the sick in the college and seminary.”

Five monks and one seminarian lost their lives during the epidemic.

“Both affected numerous countries across the world. There were interruptions to learning. Some students had the option of staying on campus or to go home.” Br. Xavier O’Mara

But, the article says, “the pandemic had run its course by the end of the year, and life went back to normal.”

A view of the Saint Vincent College and Archabbey Church during the early 20th Century. (Source: Saint Vincent)

Brother Xavier explained that students were sent home, and then came back within three weeks.

[When] students were sent home, all classes were cancelled until they returned, so learning was lost,” Xavier stated. “Some students had the option of staying on campus or to go home.”

Both pandemics affected numerous countries, he said, but also highlighted a key difference of the Coronavirus response.

“Students were sent home for more than three weeks, but classes were still in session online. No learning lost,” stated Brother Xavier.

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