Gonzaga’s 1918 Pandemic Experience: From the Diary of Jesuits
“Influenza in style, everybody’s getting it.”
Let’s picture a few borrowed Sunday afternoon minutes, 13 October 1918, when Fr. Paul Sauer, the Gonzaga Jesuit Community’s assigned diarist, penned this odd entry.1 Behind its seemingly glib portrayal lay a grim reality. The university was by then one week into the “Spanish Influenza” quarantine ordinance imposed by Spokane’s City Health Officer, Dr. John Anderson. Among other impacts, forty schools had closed their doors to an estimated 20,000 students.
By Thursday roughly 130 cases had been reported, along with the city’s first fatality, a teenage girl named Vera Wood. On Friday the Gonzaga chapel had been used for the small, private funeral of Guy Burrelli, from the St. Francis Xavier Parish neighborhood. Because of the quarantine, the deceased man’s family hadn’t been able to grant his quoted wish for a public funeral headed by a brass band; attendance was limited to twelve—six pallbearers and six family members.2 In his Saturday entry, just a day earlier, Fr. Sauer had noted that all public masses were now closed, the school’s three-story Infirmary building was filled to capacity with sick boys, and its resident physician, Dr. John O’Shea, had needed to boost his staffing with several Red Cross nurses. Clearly the situation was serious on that long-ago Sunday afternoon, and it would soon get much worse. The next day’s paper reported 550 confirmed cases now in the city, along with Dr. Anderson’s refusal to estimate how long the quarantine might last.3
Except for the daily drama of Allied advances in Europe, the late summer weeks had unfolded like they always did. Community activity began to quicken as usual after the Feast of St. Ignatius marked the end of July. Priests began arriving or heading out in all directions to conduct retreats for such groups as Jesuit Scholastics and Coadjutor Brothers, Good Shepherd Sisters, Knights of Columbus, Colfax Sisters of Providence and the entire Spokane Diocese secular clergy, including Bishop Schinner. A small fire in the school coal bin added some unexpected excitement, but then began the annual pattern of Jesuits transferring in and out of the community to start their new assignments. The August 21st arrival of Fr. John Neander, a compelling young professor of Philosophy, received special notice in Fr. Sauer’s diary.4 Another late August entry recorded the departure of President/Rector Fr. James Brogan for a conference with his other West Coast Jesuit counterparts. Their business together—strategizing at San Francisco’s Presidio on how to attract Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.) units to campus—seemed ordinary enough. Fr. Brogan’s expected success, however, was soon to have unexpected consequences.
September opened with the Interstate Fair going full tilt and a Labor Day parade downtown attended in record numbers. On the 5th, three days later, the much-anticipated telegram from Washington, D.C. came in, confirming that Gonzaga was indeed granted an S.A.T.C. contract. From that point on, the pace really quickened and there was no looking back. News of the award spread so fast that within days inquiries and applications began peppering the mail. Sunday the 8th saw the first students arrive, with $175 in hand to cover their Fall room, board and tuition expenses. The following Wednesday, Fr. Sauer estimated that 140 boarders sat down for supper at the close of the term’s first day of classes. “Accommodations short; considerable confusion” he penned the next day, and yet more S.A.T.C. hopefuls continued to appear. The program’s impact was dramatic—a tally of 368 college registrants for the previous year now swelled to nearly 650, with about 45% requesting room and board.5 Small wonder Fr. Sauer noted “Shortage in beds & equipment” in his September 16 diary entry, and yet “Applications still pouring in” ten days later. Adding to the hubbub, a dozen Jesuits from the region’s Indian missions arrived on the 25th to begin their conference. With the community residence already crowded, beds for them all needed to be found in the school dormitory, the infirmary and even the local neighborhood. Finally, if that were not enough, S.A.T.C. officers kept trickling in, each requiring quarters. Even after the October 1st ceremonial opening of military classes, beds and blankets for the inductees were being borrowed from nearby Fort George Wright, with still more on requisition. Next, six workmen hired to ease the housing crisis gave notice they would quit unless their wages were nearly doubled. Wartime labor shortages had opened new opportunities that were simply too tempting to resist. “What can we do?” Fr. Sauer plaintively wrote on October 4; then on the 5th, “A few cases of Spanish Influenza appear among the boys and army men.” Truly it had been quite a month.
It would be hard to find a more traumatic week in Gonzaga history than the one following Fr. Sauer’s odd Sunday afternoon comment. The very next day he recorded the first of his fellow Jesuits to develop a debilitating fever, thirty-five-year-old Fr. Timothy Driscoll. As Prefect of Student Health, Fr. Driscoll had already logged many hours during the preceding week among his sick charges in the infirmary, and now it was his turn. On Tuesday vigorous Fr. Neander was stricken. Despite these developments and seventy “all mild” cases on campus, along with news of a ‘quarantine hotel’ being commandeered by the city, it seems as if the gravity of the situation was not yet fully grasped. “S.A.T.C. still getting organized,” Fr. Sauer groused, “The influenza has upset the program considerably.” Other minds at least, saw clear to cancel Wednesday’s scheduled football game with Whitman College.6 By Friday there was no doubt about the degree of crisis. Dr. Anderson was running short of volunteer nurses in the city, while at Gonzaga at least 100 students were receiving medical care, five cases critical enough to warrant last rites. One of their volunteer infirmary nurses, beloved Mary O’Brien, had become so ill that she herself needed a hospital.7 Within the Jesuit community, Fr. Driscoll’s condition remained serious, and Neander’s had deteriorated to where he too required hospitalization. Cornelius McCoy, Edward Shipsey and Joseph Lynch, all young scholastics teaching in the high school, were now feverish as well.
"Feeling of alarm prevails,” the house diary testifies, “Fr. Rector promised solemn mass in thanksgiving to the Sacred Heart if we get through the epidemic safely."
Gonzaga freshman James Charles Clinton, of Sandpoint, died on Saturday, 19 October 1918, only a day away from his nineteenth birthday.8 He was among the 1239 recorded influenza cases, and eight fatalities, in Spokane that same day.9 On Sunday, classmate Albert Louis Arroussez, of Walla Walla, succumbed to his pneumonia. Albert was also an eighteen-year-old freshman, just two and a half weeks into his young college life. Fr. Neander, with a 105-degree fever, died in delirium late Monday evening.10 By then another scholastic, Francis Prange, was nearing the need for hospitalization, and middle-aged Fr. Michael Hourican was entering his onset of symptoms. Both men would have been teachers for the two deceased boys.
From a distance, the five weeks following these traumas display a precarious tension between even more distress alongside newfound hope, and thus acts of both caution and incaution. The first week, on balance, held more distress than hope. Of necessity Fr. Neander’s funeral and interment on Wednesday was a subdued affair. By then Prange had joined Driscoll at Sacred Heart Hospital, and Jesuit Br. Francis Dougherty was among the community bedridden. However, the case of Fr. William Bennett, another of the high school teachers, offered a bright spot—his symptoms had cleared within twenty-four hours. Nevertheless, Gonzaga leaders decided to cancel all classes beginning the next day, October 24, for as long as the local quarantine should last. Dormitory space soon became less crowded as boarders who could do so returned to their families. Physician, Dr. John O’Shea, was “elated” over positive changes he saw in the infirmary, his enthusiasm colored perhaps by his own recent recovery from a two-day confinement.11 Though his caseload was gradually declining, yet another of his nurses had to withdraw due to pneumonia. Fr. Sauer resumed chronicling the S.A.T.C. program, but without mention that sixty of its inductees had by then contracted influenza,12 and six of its officers had been detailed as pallbearers for nurse O’Brien’s funeral.13 Since high school completion was no longer required, another rush of applicants seemed likely to refill all the just emptied dormitory beds. On Monday, October 28, S.A.T.C. instruction resumed, but in terrible irony another student was lost that same day—fifteen-year-old high school sophomore Francis Blair Miner, of Somers, Montana.14 The diary records young Frank’s father, Leon Miner, making the long sad drive over to bury his son.
Hopefulness and incaution steadily gained ground over the next month. Pres. Brogan needed a respite from the strain, Sauer recorded on November 4, but also that Frs. Hourican and Driscoll were finally able to leave the hospital, and Mr. Prange was well enough to sit upright. A solemn mass was held, also on the 4th, for the three deceased boys. Travel restrictions did not prohibit the transfer of fifteen S.A.T.C. students to Ft. McArthur, Texas, for officer training. However, now influenza began raging among the Jesuit scholastics at Mount St. Michaels, several miles north of the city. By November 8, over 70% of the community’s 118 members were ill. One young man of frail health had already expired, and forty-five were in bed, six with pneumonia.15
Besides declaring an end to the war, the November 11th Armistice marked a release in the grip held by the epidemic as well. The state-wide ban on travel was lifted the next day, and overworked infirmarian, Br. Anthony Broderick, took immediate advantage by going to Seattle.16 “Community again complete,” Fr. Sauer applauded on November 16, upon Prange’s discharge from the hospital. His diary entries returned to the routine comings and goings of Jesuits, including an overnight business trip of his own. Three varsity football games, all losses, went ahead as scheduled, and on the 25th classes reopened.17 Two days later, word was received that the S.A.T.C. program was to close. Fitting both the occasion and recent events, a Solemn High Mass was celebrated in the St. Aloysius Church that Thanksgiving Day, 1918.
But all was not yet over. Fr. Sauer’s November 30 entry is worth quoting in entirety: “Influenza cases again increasing. The [city] ban was lifted after 6 weeks. Celebrations, dances, theatres & movies as though all danger were over. Common sense is noticeably absent.” Cases continued to rise for the next week, both on campus and in the city, prompting Dr. Anderson to reimpose quarantine restrictions on social venues. Though public-school officials asked him to extend these over their younger students, Anderson’s advice to Gonzaga was to remain open. On December 5, another member of the Jesuit community, forty-six-year-old Fr. James Malone, required hospitalization. He would survive his fever but remain unwell for the next two months. December 10th saw the formal disbanding of the S.A.T.C. program. With the departure of no less than 116 students in a single day,18 dormitory legroom returned to a semblance of normal. The infirmary had emptied more gradually, but finally reached the point on December 20 when its last nurse was free to depart, along with the entire student body for their holiday break. Church services in the city were open again, though under certain public health constraints—children under sixteen could not attend, church choirs were still disallowed, and all congregants must seat themselves in an alternating vacancy pattern. To compensate for its half-filled pews, St. Aloysius offered six Christmas Day masses, “all well attended.” This made for an unusually busy, yet festive day for the Jesuit community. Fr. Sauer concluded his expansive description of it with rare warmth: “After supper the whole community assembled in the Father’s recreation room for an informal Christmas family gathering. Excellent spirits prevailed and all were happy.” With this pleasing image ends Gonzaga’s 1918 pandemic experience; no further mention of Spanish Influenza can be found in the Jesuit community diary. The school reopened on the 3rd day of a new year, and another basketball season was about to begin.
The present turmoil due to Coronavirus naturally informs both the writing and reading of Gonzaga’s first encounter with pandemic and raises our interest in comparison and assessment. From this perspective then, it is shocking to see college classes remaining open, and dormitories crowded, until October 24, by which time four fatalities had already occurred. Likewise, the continuation of the football schedule throughout November also seems irresponsible. It would be unfair, however, to perceive as uncaring the cool detachment and preoccupation with S.A.T.C. concerns found in Fr. Sauer’s entries. His tone matches with his time, and Jesuit community diaries were generally a prosaic exercise, meant to be official and succinct. Neither can Pres. Brogan’s effort to secure a S.A.T.C. contract be faulted, even though student overcrowding and the influx of Army men likely made matters worse. There surely had been no reason to anticipate a swift onset of deadly influenza, or time to mitigate its impact. In other ways Gonzaga’s leaders deserve clear credit. Simply having a forty-bed infirmary and staff physician at the ready, is a testament to responsible action taken over a decade earlier when typhoid fever had brought tragedy to campus. And service within that infirmary appears to have been superb, even heroic.19 As infection rates reached the need for social control, sober respect was given, not just to Dr. Anderson’s personal expertise and authority, but also to the scientific discipline and field of knowledge he represented. There is an overarching sense of steadiness and pragmatism in the way Gonzaga responded to the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918, virtues still on display in our own time of challenge.
- House Diary, 1908-1922, Gonzaga University Jesuit Community Collection, 6:1, Jesuit Archives and Research Center, St. Louis. All subsequent references to “diary” or direct quotations indicate this same resource.
- Spokesman Review, October 9-11, 1918
- Spokane Chronicle, October 14, 1918
- Wilfred P. Schoenberg, Paths to the Northwest: a Jesuit History of the Oregon Province (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1982), p. 317.
- College Registration Ledger, Gonzaga University Archives, Spokane
- Spokane Chronicle, October 16, 1918
- Wilfred P. Schoenberg, Gonzaga University; seventy-five years, 1887-1962 (Spokane: Gonzaga University, 1963), pp. 255-256
- College Registration Ledger, Gonzaga University Archives, Spokane
- Spokane Chronicle, October 19, 1918
- Gonzaga, Vol. X, No. 1 (Christmas, 1918), pp. 4-6. Available online through the Foley Digital Archives.
- Spokane Chronicle, October 22, 1918
- Ibid., October 24, 1918
- S.A.T.C. Collection, Gonzaga University Archives, Spokane
- College Registration Ledger, Gonzaga University Archives, Spokane. Note: the ledger is at variance with the Gonzaga House Diary, in recording October 26th as date of death.
- Edward Peacock, S.J. See Woodstock Letters, Vol. 48, No. 2 (June, 1919), pp. 244-250. Available online through jesuitonlinelibrary.bc.edu
- For Br. Broderick, see Oregon Jesuit, March, 1949, p. 1
- Gonzaga University Catalogue, 1918-1919, p. 63
- College Registration Ledger, Gonzaga University Archives, Spokane
- Besides Dr. O’Shea, his nurses and Br. Broderick, Chaplain Peter Halpin, SJ, “seemed to be everywhere.” See Schoenberg, Paths to the Northwest, p. 317, and Schoenberg, Gonzaga University, p. 256.