The Yellow Fever Martyrs Church has its beginnings in 1839, just three years after the founding of Holly Springs. A small but influential group of Episcopalians had settled here, and Bishop James H. Otey of the Diocese of Tennessee (which held dominion over Mississippi before the founding the Diocese of Mississippi ten years later) authorized the creation of a new parish in the young town.
This parish, named Christ Church, was founded on April 21, 1839. The first rector of Christ Church was Coley Foster, and the first vestry consisted of A. M. Clayton (Senior Warden), I. B. Clansel (Junior Warden), and Walter Goodman, H. M. Lusher, George A. Wilson, George W. Pittman, Dr. Joseph Bretney and Yelverston Newsom (member at large).
The earliest Episcopal congregations would meet in the Courthouse, before a new lot was purchased for Christ Church on September 23rd, 1839. This lot, at the corner of today’s Van Dorn Avenue and Randolph Street, has been the home to the Episcopal Church in Holly Springs for 180 years.
Soon, the congregation began raising funds for the construction of a church building. The building that was erected was a small but sturdy heavy timber-framed, clapboarded church with Gothic styling. It was built on the newly-purchased lot, and faced south towards today’s Van Dorn Avenue. Construction of the church was complete by early August, 1840, as the congregation held its first service in the new church building on August 16, 1840.
Over the next year and a half, Christ Church’s congregation grew larger, and many of the early citizens and founding fathers of Holly Springs became members of Christ Church. The building itself was lavishly decorated, with plastered walls and a gallery for the members’ slaves (both of which were rarities in the early antebellum years). On February 12, 1842, in what was almost certainly a huge celebration, Bishop James Otey arrived in Holly Springs and officially consecrated the building.
During the “flush times” of the 1850s, the Christ Church congregation grew to such an extent that it soon became evident that a new, larger church building would be needed. Rather than abandon their beloved church building and move elsewhere, the Episcopalians were presented with another option.
Christ Church to St. Joseph’s
The founding of the Mississippi Central Railroad in 1852 resulted in an influx of Irish Catholics to Holly Springs. In August 1857, Mississippi Roman Catholic Bishop William H. Elder wrote to Father Thomas Grace, at St. Peter Catholic Church in Memphis, Tennessee, asking Father Grace to help and support the growing Catholic population in Holly Springs. Father Grace met with the local Catholics several times, and in September of 1857, the Catholics purchased the small church from Christ Episcopal Church.
In October of 1857, the church was moved two blocks east, on College Avenue. Details from a letter written by Father Grace and addressed to Bishop Elder make it clear that the church was moved as a whole, likely by a team of oxen and many logs, though the original roof, slave gallery and much of the woodwork were lost in the move. With the original church gone, Christ Episcopal Church was able to built the massive Gothic church which still stands on the lot today.
In November 1857, Bishop Elder arrived in Holly Springs to officially re-consecrate the church as St. Joseph’s Church, named after the earthly father of Jesus Christ. While the church was not yet complete from its recent move and restoration, the Bishop encouraged the young congregation to continue the work.
The period between 1857 and 1862 was the “high-water mark” of St. Joseph’s Church. With the completion of the Mississippi Central Railroad from Holly Springs to Water Valley in 1858, the railroad opened the Mississippi Central Railroad repair and service yards in Holly Springs, greatly increasing the population of the town. In addition, the Jones-McElwain and Company Iron Foundry opened in 1859, bringing even more workers to Holly Springs, many of whom were Roman Catholic. By 1860, when the Mississippi Central Railroad was complete, St. Joseph’s Church had a congregation that numbered over 300. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, the Parish Priest for St. Joseph’s Church was Father Basilio Elia.
After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, many of the Confederate wounded were brought to Holly Springs. Even more wounded soldiers arrived in Holly Springs after the Battle of Shiloh, in April 1862. Father Elia was having difficulties administering the last rites to all of the Catholic soldiers, and requested help from Bishop Elder, who traveled to Holly Springs from Natchez to help the priest.
In December 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Holly Springs with his troops, beginning his Mississippi Central Railroad Campaign to travel south towards Vicksburg. For the next decade, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, Holly Springs would be an occupied town. After Confederate General Earl Van Dorn’s famous raid against Union-occupied Holly Springs on December 18, 1862, an enraged Union army was let loose on Holly Springs. Many homes and churches were ransacked and desecrated, including St. Joseph’s Church.
On December 22, 1862, Cyrus F. Boyd, a soldier of the 15th Iowa Infantry, described the desecration of the church: the soldiers struck the floors of the church with their bayonets, causing damage to the floors which can still be seen today. In addition, one of the soldiers climbed to the top of the church and stole a silver cross. St. Joseph’s Church would continue to be occupied by Federal troops until the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Having survived the Civil War, St. Joseph’s Church suffered a series of setups that resulted in the near collapse of the entire congregation. With the close of the War, the Mississippi Central Railroad repair yards were moved south, to Water Valley. In addition, the Iron Foundry, which had been used by the Confederate government during the War, lay in ruins. Virtually overnight, the majority of the Holly Springs Roman Catholic population left town. With a much-reduced congregation, a permanent priest was no longer needed, and Father Elia moved to Memphis, with occasional visits back to Holly Springs and his St. Joseph’s family. Within a few years though, St. Joseph’s had stabilized, as the Church had a new priest, Father Wise, who would help lead the congregation into a new educational venture.
In 1866, 33 local Catholics wrote a letter to Bishop Elder, requesting the creation of a Catholic girls school in Holly Springs. The Catholics had the support of Harvey Walter, one of the founders of the Mississippi Central Railroad, who wrote to the Nazareth Convent in Kentucky, seeking the help of the Sisters of Charity. In September 1868, eight Sisters of Charity arrived in Holly Springs to help Father Wise establish the catholic school, called Bethlehem Academy. Initially, during the 1868-1869 school year, the school met in the antebellum Hamilton Place.
In 1869, Bethlehem Academy moved to another antebellum house, the Pointer House. The Sisters of Charity built a frame addition to the house, which included dormitories and a chapel. During the first year of its existence at the new building, tuition plus room and board cost students $88.00 for a five month semester. By 1870, Bethlehem Academy had 57 students, 12 Sisters of Charity, five domestic servants and two guard dogs: Captain Jenks and Julius Caesar.
Bethlehem Academy survived the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, though half of the Sisters of Charity died in the Epidemic and the student population was significantly reduced. The school lasted for another fifteen years, before it closed in 1893. The old school building was used as the Episcopal St. Thomas School from 1893 until 1898, when the building was destroyed in a fire.
Yellow Fever Martyrs
Throughout the 1860s, St. Joseph’s Church maintained a small but healthy congregation. A peek at a service at St. Joseph’s is obtained through the diary of local teenager Belle Strickland, who attended Easter Sunday service at St. Joseph’s in 1868: “today I went to the Catholic Church with Mary, and was highly delighted at the performance. It was Easter and the Church was trimmed very prettily indeed. There were a great many people there from other churches, and some of them couldn’t get seats.”
St. Joseph’s Church entered its darkest hour in August, 1878, when the Yellow Fever Epidemic arrived in Holly Springs. Even after the Epidemic was officially declared on September 4th, the presiding priest, Father Anacletus Oberti, and the Sisters of Charity at Bethlehem Academy determined to stay behind to help the victims of Yellow Fever. As the first victims began to die from the Fever, Father Oberti and the Sisters of Charity established a makeshift hospital in the now-empty Marshall County Courthouse.
Though Oberti and the Sisters of Charity served tirelessly, one by one they contracted Yellow Fever. The first to die was Father Oberti himself, succumbing to Yellow Jack on September 11th. Sister Stanislaus died on September 22nd, becoming the first of six Sisters of Charity to give up their lives in the fight against the Fever. She was followed by Sisters Stella and Margarette on September 26th and 28th.
On September 30th, the death of Sister Corinthia was witnessed by Dr. R. M. Swearinger, one of the physicians at the Courthouse hospital. Moved by Corinthia’s sacrifice, Swearinger wrote a tribute to her on the walls of the Marshall County Courthouse. This tribute remained on the Courthouse wall until 1925, when the Courthouse was renovated and this portion of the wall was removed and then sent to the Nazareth Convent in Kentucky, where it remained for nearly 50 years. In 1971, the inscriptionwas returned to Holly Springs and displayed in the Marshall County Historical Museum, where it remains today. A copy of the inscription is also at the Yellow Fever Martyrs Museum.
Within this room, September, 1878, Sister Corinthia sank into sleep eternal. Among the first to enter this realm of death, she was the last, save one, to leave. The writer of this humble notice saw her in health, gentle but strong, as she moved with noiseless step and serene smiles through the crowded wards. He saw her when the yellow plumed angel threw his golden shadows over the last sad scene, and eyes unused to weeping payed the tribute of tears to the brave and beautiful “Spirit of Mercy”.
R. M. Swearinger, M. D., 1878
During the month of October, two more Sisters died of Yellow Fever: Sister Victoria on October 5th and Sister Laurentia on October 11th. Of the 12 Sisters of Charity that began the year at Bethlehem Academy, six died during the Yellow Fever Epidemic. The six Sisters were buried on the same lot in Hill Crest Cemetery as Father Oberti. Within a year, a grateful town dedicated a monument to the Yellow Fever Martyrs in Hill Crest Cemetery. Like Swearinger’s tribute to Sister Corinthia, inscribed on the Courthouse walls, the Yellow Fever Martyrs Monument is a testament to a time when kind and loving Roman Catholics gave everything, including their lives, to help save their beloved town.
Church and Museum
The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 resulted in enormous losses for St. Joseph’s Church. Not only did the parish’s priest and half of the Sisters of Charity die to the Fever, but so did 33 members of the congregation. For the next twenty years, the congregation continued to lose members, until 1896, when the congregation lost its parish status and became a mission church. At this time, the congregation had just sixteen members, and services were held just once a month, when a priest from Water Valley made the trip north.
By the mid 20th century, the St. Joseph’s congregation had recovered to the point that they were able to initiate another educational venture in Holly Springs. With support from the Sacred Heart Mission, two new Catholic schools were created in town in 1948. In the antebellum Strickland House, St. Joseph’s School was created, while St. Mary’s School was established in the antebellum Turner Lane House. Due to the State of Mississippi’s laws at this time, the schools remained segregated by race. While St. Joseph’s School eventually closed, St. Mary’s School still exists today as Holy Family School.
In the 1970s, the Historic American Buildings Survey team visited Holly Springs and photographed the exterior and interior of the church. By this time, the St. Joseph’s congregation had grown to such an extent that the old church building was no longer big enough to accommodate the entire congregation. These HABS photographs remain a fascinating glimpse of the last days of the original St. Joseph’s Church.
The last services to the be held in old St. Joseph’s Church were in 1981. Afterwards, the congregation moved to a new, modern church building located on Van Dorn Avenue, where it stands today. For the next fifteen years, the old St. Joseph’s Church, which witnessed the birth of the town and its near destruction during the Yellow Fever Epidemic, slowly rotted and deteriorated due to neglect.
By the early 1990s, the church was in serious danger of being demolished. In 1995, the a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization called the Historic Heritage Preservation Corporation obtained stewardship of the old church and began needed repairs and restoration. Once repairs were completed, it was decided that the old St. Joseph’s Church would be renamed the Yellow Fever Martyrs Church and Museum, dedicated to the memory of Father Oberti and the Sisters of Charity who gave their lives so many years ago. The Museum officially opened in 2000, with displays and artifacts related to the Yellow Fever Epidemic and the Martyrs, as well as artifacts that date back to the Museum’s long history as a Roman Catholic Church.
Today, all are welcome to visit our Yellow Fever Museum and learn of the victims, heroes and martyrs of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.