Whispers of the coming pestilence had reached St. Louis via newspaper before the disease claimed its first victims in January 1849. Preemptive fear gripped the city, including the university. An undated petition signed by 16 students sometime in the latter half of 1848, exclaims “Le Choléra!!!” and implores in French that students be allowed to smoke, claiming that “the smoke of tobacco is capable of repulsing this enemy.”
By May 1849, the situation had grown dire. A letter from Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J., then second-in-command of the local Jesuit province, records that in that month, prayers against the calamity were “said every evening in our churches and novenas said in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” Among these churches was St. Francis Xavier.
With students living so close together on a campus in the thick of the growing city and the epidemic pressing from all sides, anxieties mounted high at Saint Louis University.
Fearful for the school, the students’ Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary club was among the groups praying daily for safety from the epidemic at St. Francis Xavier. Sometime in May, at the behest of Fr. Isidore Boudreaux, S.J., the head of the Sodality, the group gathered the student body in the chapel.
Fr. De Smet records that there, in front of the statue that now rests outside the current church’s daily Mass chapel, the students gathered to ask Mary’s protection on the whole student body from the plague:
"Assembled in the chapel of the Sodality, which is specifically dedicated to Our Lady, with lips which gave utterance to the deepest feelings of their hearts, they implored her divine protection; on their knees, with filial confidence and affection, they besought Mary, their heavenly Mother, to shield them from the coming pestilence, and with a loving, childlike simplicity, they promised that if none of them, or of those living in the University, should fall victims to the cholera, they would place on her statue a silver crown, which would be to them a continual memorial of her love."
The school also placed medals of the Immaculate Conception on the gates and doors of the school, a brief biography of Boudreaux located in the Jesuit Archives notes.
This promise to Mary “seemed to have dispelled all fear” among the students, Fr. Thomas Chambers, S.J., said in a letter dated October 1899, 50 years after the plague. He records that some students, when asked if they were worried about the epidemic, replied, “No! The cholera durst not enter those College walls. The Bl. Virgin keeps it off.”
Throughout the course of the epidemic, the Jesuits focused much of their ministry on serving the sick. “Our Fathers were night and day, for months together, among the dead and dying,” Fr. De Smet recorded in the months following the epidemic.
One in particular, Fr. Arnold Damen, was recognized by the city of St. Louis for his efforts against the contagion. Also assisting the sick around the clock from the university faculty was Dr. Moses Linton, a decorated professor at the medical school.
In June, students were sent home for fear of the illness, and the university closed until September. Commencement exercises were canceled. The year instead concluded with the annual dinner on the feast of John the Baptist.
“I assure you it was a happy thought to break up [the school term],” reads a letter dated June 9, 1849 from Boudreaux. “Most of the parents were on the point of recalling their sons.”
The official death toll for the city from cholera that year stands at 5,547. The actual number is almost certainly far higher due to the inexactitude of many records and the fact that many of the dead were buried outside the city proper. Many estimates, Gordon said, place the actual number between 7,000 and 8,000. Either way, it amounts to a sizable fraction of the 77,000 population in the city.
The contagion reached its height in St. Louis that July, with 2,211 deaths, and at the start of August, the Committee of Public Health declared that the emergency in the city had officially ended. That same month, only 54 died of the disease.
When Saint Louis University resumed session in September, the epidemic had well died off.
With students back at the school, they were all of them safe from the effects of cholera, and all priests remained in good health despite their constant ministry to the sick.
The epidemic that had claimed around a tenth of the population of the city and wreaked havoc across the world had not crept into campus walls. The student body remained whole, and none of the Jesuits had fallen sick despite their vigorous ministry to the infirm.
The school took this as a sign of their vow to the Blessed Mother. On the evening of October 8 that year, the university gathered for a two-and-a-half hour ceremony to uphold their promise and crown the statue.
Fr. De Smet records that the church was decorated in evergreen garlands and flowers, white wreaths, and “numberless” lamps ranged in the shapes of “hearts, crowns, and crosses.” The ceremony included Benediction, hymns, and a talk “every way well suited to the occasion” by a Rev. Gleizal, whom he describes as “a most devoted servant of Mary.” Students carried lighted candles wrapped in small wreaths.
At the climax of the coronation ceremony, the crown was blessed and processed twice around the church, a scene De Smet described as “beautiful and imposing,” before the crowd sang the the Te Deum and, “[a]mid a most deathlike silence,” crowned the statue of the Mother to whom they attributed their survival.
The silver crown today
Today, the crown rests separate from the statue, occasionally trading homes between its current location at St. Francis Xavier and a museum on SLU’s campus. The students of the 1840s also dedicated a marble plaque in Latin that described the history of the statue and crown. That plaque today lies in storage, too heavy for the walls of the current chapel. A bronze version with a translation of the original marble display hangs beside the statue instead. The parish has moved location in the elapsing century and a half, and the statue, crown, and plaques are some of the few remains of the original church.
The SLU population of 1849 had several temporal factors working in its favor, Fr. Suwalsky noted.
“Poverty meant that families couldn't afford doctors which meant that they were not subjected to the horror that was medicine in those days,” he said. “No dirty hands, instruments or wacky potions... Plus the students were male, young and healthy and therefore less susceptible to illness.” Suwalsky also noted that the university population also likely had access to better-quality water than did many poorer parts of the city.
“Still,” he said, “it is an amazing thing that a disease as virulent as cholera which took the lives of as many as 10% of St. Louis' population didn't reach into the university community. I am willing to call that a miracle.”
Of course, not all prayers are so explicitly answered.
“They were trusting that placing themselves under the protection of the Virgin would bring about a very positive thing,” Fr. Suwalsky said, “and I’m not sure that they had any sort of guarantee that they would emerge unscathed. But, they trusted that it was the right thing to do, and I think that’s all we can do. Trust that the Lord provides for us, and we will continue to believe that God’s help and grace is always present and available to us.”
The story of the Mary statue at St. Francis Xavier College Church bears relevance today in the face of another global epidemic, with the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“These things aren’t, sadly, unique” from a historical perspective, Fr. Suwalsky said. “We should understand that you do the right things and you keep working.” Today, in measures against COVID-19, SLU is one of a number of universities that has transitioned to online coursework for the remainder of the semester for most students.
“There’s always been the practice in the Church to place ourselves under the patronage, under the beneficial, beneficent care of the Virgin,” he said. “And that was exactly what they were doing in 1849, and probably something that Catholics should still do today.”
“It’s this idea that the caring Mother of God will take care of us, and that helps us to get out of our own selves and our own fears.”