The Bishop’s E-pistle: Finding Hope in History

Last Sunday, I visited St. John’s (Bisbee) and St. Stephen’s (Douglas). Knowing that these congregations are both over 100 years old, I asked the current Vicar, the Rev. John Caleb Collins, to get out whatever parish record books the congregations had from 1917-18.

I wanted to see what stories those record books would tell about the Spanish Flu epidemic. In Bisbee, he found the baptismal record book. Baptisms appear to have stopped for about two years beginning in early 1918. Perhaps there was a change of vicars? Perhaps the person who was good at keeping records moved on?

St. Stephen’s told a clearer story. The Vicar found the burial register for the congregations, which notes the first death from “Spanish Influenza” on October 25, 1917. And then deaths accelerated until between November 22 and December 13 when there were 13 deaths, only one of which was from something other than the flu. Once again, the record keeping stops in 1918, and doesn’t pick up again until 1919.

It was both heartbreaking and hope-giving to see these records. Heartbreaking to see how the flu pandemic of 1917-18 must have decimated these mining towns. I wish they had written in a note about why they stopped keeping records: did the churches close completely? Did the clergy die?

But it also gave me hope. St. John’s and St. Stephen’s (and a few of our other congregations) endured through that pandemic, and are still with us over 100 years later.

What will your parish record books say about 2020? We aren’t counting worship attendance by clicks and views, but do make sure to record something in those books to indicate what is going on in your congregation. “Moved to online worship March 22, resumed limited in-person worship September 13” or whatever is applicable. This is a (hopefully) unique year that future generations will want to see through our eyes.

In another form of storytelling, a reminder that we are asking every congregation to submit 2-4 minutes of raw video for #AZEpiscopal2020. We are going to make a unified, 20-minute video of what life has looked like around our diocese this year to share the story with one another and with those who come after us. The deadline for submissions is next Monday, September 7.