St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron saint of students, died caring for victims of a plague epidemic in Rome in the 16th century, an act that led to his beatification less than 15 years later and canonization as a Roman Catholic saint favored among many members of the Society of Jesus.
Even knowing this, the Jesuits in charge of the school in Spokane that still bears Aloysius’ surname never could have anticipated that centuries later, they themselves would endure the darkest days of history’s most deadly epidemic – the Spanish influenza of 1918.
As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic looms over Gonzaga’s campus entering 2021, it brings to mind the degree to which the Spanish flu transformed the end of 1918 for the school and community at large. In 2020, GU had a plan for how to bring students to campus as safely as possible that had been developed months in advance, but in 1918, the community was blindsided at a time of immense structural duress, pushed to its absolute limits by sickness and death.
Despite competing theories on the specific origin of the first virus, one thing remains clear: when American soldiers left for World War I, they often came back with the Spanish flu. A particularly virulent strain of the flu had already spread throughout mainland Europe, and soldiers became the transmitter between the European continent and North America.
When the virus was first identified in military personnel in the spring of 1918, public health structures on the homefront were already suffering from a shortage of nurses due to the war effort. As soldiers returned, the far more deadly strain of influenza swept through the country unrelentingly through the winter.
Spokane, the young and rapidly growing city it was, was soon overtaken in the same span. The entries of, the Jesuits’ assigned diarist in 1918, give a glimpse into how the school became overwhelmed by the virus.
Businesslike and plain, Sauer describes the sickness and death without much sentiment. But to mistake his no-nonsense approach would be a misunderstanding of the diary’s purpose – especially for a man who would later go on to manage the community’s finances until the ‘50s.
“I think what we’re seeing in the diary is kind of a reflection of his attitude and approach toward life,” said David Kingma, a GU assistant professor and Oregon Jesuit Province archivist who compiled Jesuit resources to write a narrative of the 1918 pandemic for the school. “It’s not strictly just the fact that he was an assigned diarist, which he was, but I think he was a man of pragmatic nature.”
Gonzaga’s first recorded cases of the Spanish flu began in mid-September 1918. But as it turned out, a confluence of events that would soon shake the institution to its core began in August of that year – with a seemingly harmless trip by President and Rector Fr. James Brogan to San Francisco.
Cadets pour inWhen Brogan departed August for a West Coast Jesuit conference on the potential for bringing Student Army Training Corps to campus, there was nothing to indicate that a deal with the War Department would bring anything but positives for the school.
Washington State College – now WSU – had signed a similar contract with the War Department over the summer, as had numerous other institutions throughout the state. And with news of Allied advances constant that summer, Germany’s defeat was nearing certainty by August. It would seem the training felt like a safe commitment that would bring a substantial amount of new students to the college.
The corps curriculum, developed by the War Department’s Committee on Education and Special Training as an effort to supplement troops in the war, allowed men eligible for the draft to volunteer for service and receive their training on campus. Army officers were appointed to teach students military subjects, while other faculty (in Gonzaga’s case, primarily Jesuits) would coordinate other academic endeavors.
But unlike the administrators in Pullman, who had all summer to strategize and accumulate public resources after signing a contract with the War Department in late May, Gonzaga was wholly unprepared for the impending influx of cadets it was about to take in. When the tiny Catholic school finally received confirmation via telegram of the same contract Sept. 5, there were only three days to prepare before students started arriving on campus. All the Jesuits, including Brogan, could do, it seemed, was wait and hope for the best.
“I don’t think he really had any notion of what was coming down the pike,” Kingma said.
For the record, even WSC, which took in 1,325 new cadets in 1918, would become inundated by the virus during the same timeframe, with 600 influenza cases and 42 deaths among the corps ranks. One cadet’s death led to charges of negligence eventually investigated by the governor and board of regents.
But in Spokane in early September, the public’s sentiment toward the threat of the flu was largely dismissive. The previous occurrence of the virus had minimal community impact, and even Public Health Officer Dr. John Anderson was telling citizens not to fear.
As he said to The Spokane Daily Chronicle in September:
“If Spokane people will sneeze in their handkerchiefs and turn their heads the ‘other’ way when they cough, there is but a remote chance that the city will be attacked by an epidemic of Spanish influenza.”
Meanwhile on Gonzaga’s campus, the next two weeks made it plainly apparent that the Jesuits had underestimated the draw of incoming cadets and training officers, as well as the resources required to accommodate them. The 368 matriculated students the year previous suddenly neared twice that, with just under half of them requiring room and board from the college. And with Jesuit business and academic conferences with visitors still taking place, the campus had never been as packed.
Gonzaga was soon borrowing pillows and blankets from nearby Fort Wright, scrambling to make amenities available as more new students were still arriving on a daily basis two weeks later. By that point, students had to bunk up in beds and mattresses just so that everyone had a place to sleep.
“I was impressed by how quickly things moved,” Kingma said. “You know, he was in San Francisco and he barely made it back (to Spokane) when they got news of the contract award, and then students within a matter of days started showing up. There seemed to be incredible demand for that program.”
“Boys still coming in,” Sauer wrote on Sept. 16, noting that many of the new students hadn’t completed high school due to the requirement being dropped for the program.
“Shortage in beds and equipment. House overcrowded.”
To worsen things, six of the school’s workmen had indicated their intention to quit if their demands for increased wages were not met – “wages that are exorbitant,” Sauer wrote, “but there is no way to avoid it.”
“What can we do?” he echoed the next day, the Jesuits enervated and out of options, the school bursting at the seams.
He was not yet aware that a far more dire threat would begin to occupy his focus the very next day, when he wrote only one sentence for his entry: “A few cases of Spanish influenza appear among the boys and army men.”
With quarters packed with students beyond a level the school had ever seen, the influenza spread rapidly throughout the institution. The next day, Fr. Timothy Driscoll would become the first of multiple Jesuits to fall seriously ill.
He would recover within weeks, but was joined in the infirmary by the “vigorous” Fr. Neander the next day. Neander’s acute, feverish symptoms perturbed the Jesuits who had been in close contact with him frequently in days previous.
Gonzaga’s initial surge in cases ran parallel with Spokane’s, but its pressure-cooker living arrangements and thinly stretched resources exacerbated the emerging threat, diminishing the chance of reaching a conclusion without significant sickness and death.
On Oct. 8, Anderson publicly announced the news that he had hoped he would never have to say. The epidemic was now in full swing in Spokane, he stated, ordering new rules limiting the use of public venues effective at midnight. All schools, theaters, dance halls and churches were to temporarily close. Public meetings of any type were strictly prohibited.
Stores were forbidden to have sales that could potentially draw risky crowds. Spitting in the street became an arrestable offense, and rules regarding building ventilation and sanitation were equally strictly enforced. Trials at the courthouse and work at the Spokane Stock Exchange were halted indefinitely.
“Influenza is in style,” Sauer mused on Oct. 13, an anachronistic choice of humor that stands out among the diary’s entries. “Everybody’s getting it.”
As usual, no one would accuse Sauer of ambiguity.
Meanwhile, the school’s 40-bed infirmary was filling rapidly. A staff physician had been added a decade earlier as a precaution against a resurgence of typhoid fever, and at least 100 students required medical care at this point, with five of them in dire enough condition for the Jesuits to see fit to issue last rites.
Nurses were falling ill themselves, including Mary O’Brien, whose symptoms were threatening enough that she had to be hospitalized.
Death weighed heavily on the Jesuits’ minds as October stretched on. Freshman James Clinton died on a Saturday, only a day short of turning 19. In the registration book, only his mother was listed – it appears his father was either deceased or not present.
The next day, another 18-year-old freshman, Albert Arroussez, died from pneumonia as well. Neander passed away “in delirium” that Monday evening with a 105-degree fever, marking three straight days of irreplaceable loss.
On Oct. 28 (the same day the corps program resumed operations, an occurrence Kingma described as a “terrible irony”), another student died, a 15-year-old high school sophomore named Francis Miner.
“Francis Miner has the good fortune to receive baptism before dying,” Sauer wrote. “His father (who had made the drive from Montana to retrieve his son’s body) was present and was most favorably impressed with everything.”
To make matters worse, Brogan suddenly collapsed in the chapel on Nov. 3. Sauer did not supply a medical explanation, but the lack of mention of the influenza implies that he was likely suffering from an immense amount of stress that his body could no longer tolerate, as the man who was responsible for both the school and the Jesuit community at large.
“He had on his shoulders not only the care of all his fellow Jesuits, but the care of all his students as well,” Kingma said. “It was a heavy burden … you can kind of just chalk that up to not sleeping very well, but at both ends he was worrying about things – he was on the hook for all of it.”
By this point, even Sauer’s typically businesslike recordkeeping held notes of fear, anguish and uncertainty. The Jesuit community and student body were both in complete disarray, and solutions were limited.
“Feeling of alarm prevails,” the diary reads. “Fr. Rector (Brogan) promised solemn mass in thanksgiving to the Sacred Heart if we get through the epidemic safely.”
‘The blue death’The massive surge of new students didn’t just come at a trying time structurally – it came in-step with the onset of the deadliest wave of the pandemic.
“The waves of this epidemic from the beginning of 1918 started in January in Kansas – then it moves throughout the world and comes back in the fall in October and November,” said Dr. Veta Schlimgen, speaking during a GU webinar on pandemics in history last summer. “That’s when it seems to infect many more people with the higher mortality rate, and that lasts until January or February of 1919.”
For those on Gonzaga’s campus – specifically, a student body growing increasingly younger after the training program’s waived requirement on graduation – the results were disastrous. The death and sickness the Jesuits had already witnessed was testament enough.
“There was just no human immunity to it,” Schlimgen said. “So as the virus goes back through the population, it’s just hitting a population that has no defense and has no herd immunity.”
The community transmission rate also varied wildly from community to community, and travel bans exacerbated those differences during the darkest months of the winter. In some places, Schlimgen noted, the infection rate was just over half a percent, while in others it reached nearly 75%.
The typical fever symptoms of aches and fatigue were common, but they could quickly progress to a life-threatening level. Flu cases primarily involve the nose, throat and bronchial tree, but it can expand to the lungs in the form of pneumonia, when a bacterial infection may develop.
Sometimes called the “blue death” due to the blue pallor of those who could not oxygenate their blood, victims of the worst cases of influenza also coughed up blood, and doctors reported rapid mood swings due to hallucinations or disassociation from the intense fever. Cases of pneumonia resulting from the flu left many dying in hospital beds without the ability to breathe on their own, with nothing nurses could do to help. The ventilators similar to those seen in hospitals today assisting COVID patients would not appear until 10 years later.
“It’s a technology that people in 1918 lacked, and many died then as now from respiratory failure,” Schlimgen said. “Ventilators are one of the key differences between the (Spanish flu in 1918 and COVID ).”
Both viruses share a similar ratio of mild symptoms to severe symptoms – about 20% of people experience severe systems when infected by either disease. The most significant difference between the two is the percentage of people who die, something to which Schlimgen credits the massive improvements to medical technology in the century since.
There was also no vaccine for Spanish flu until 1942, no silver bullet to guarantee a return to some level of normalcy on any path but a gradual, costly one. To get through the rest of the pandemic, the Jesuits had no option but to hope that the worst was behind them.
‘Common sense is noticeably absent’When the state’s ban on travel was lifted Nov. 12 after news of the armistice signing by Germany the day before, “great jubilation” began to permeate the caution the Jesuits had been forced to adopt over the previous months. Sauer was more leery of the celebration than most.
“The Allied terms are so severe that (Germany’s) acceptance cannot but signify grave internal troubles,” he wrote that day, his foresight hauntingly on the mark.
“Another U.S. inspector around,” he added, while noting the corps program’s continuation for the time being despite Germany’s surrender. “We have had a veritable deluge of them lately.”
The next two weeks were full of seemingly positive change, perhaps buoyed by the war news. With “every patient normal” by the 15th, classes returned Nov. 25, and much of the regular comings and goings of Jesuits, students and cadets returned to some semblance of normalcy. Three football games went on as scheduled.
Sauer did not share that buoyancy in his Nov. 30 diary entry. He had seen too much sickness and death already, and feared that they weren’t out of the woods.
“Influenza cases again increasing,” he wrote. “The ban was lifted after 6 weeks. Celebrations, dances, theatres & movies as though all danger were over. Common sense is noticeably absent.”
From the second week of September until this point, 300,000 to 350,000 people had died in the U.S. As cases surged in newly reopened public venues, the Health Department reinstituted a modified version of its original flu ban, with churches and movie theaters required to limit seating and ventilation again monitored and regulated.
Western Union Life Insurance Co. reported policy sales had doubled since the start of the epidemic, and that their losses had increased substantially. More was paid by the county for widows’ pensions than any year previous.
Back on campus, the amount of sick students in the infirmary was slowly lessening, with fewer new cases each day. And with more students departing, quarters had somewhat returned to normal.
Unsurprisingly, the SATC program was formally disbanded Dec. 10, as quick as it came. Sauer reported that the last nurse finally departed from the school’s infirmary 10 days later, her services no longer required with no patients to tend to.
By the time the school celebrated its Christmas mass on the 25th, the mood had improved considerably once again. Recent loosenings of the county’s protocols permitted church services – but with some alterations.
Among six masses held that day in order to accommodate demand, there was no singing (church choirs were still not permitted) and only those older than 16 could attend. Congregants could only sit in every other seat, a vacancy pattern not unlike the social distancing guidelines at public places today.
But the Jesuits were just thankful it could take place.
“Our services … were well attended,” Sauer wrote, his spirits seemingly lifted by the recent developments, and perhaps some spiritual fervor. “After supper, the whole community assembled in the recreation room for an informal Christmas family gathering.
“Excellent spirits prevailed and all were happy.”
In the city, 1,045 people would be dead and nearly 17,000 infected by the end of the year, only a scant portion of the 675,000 who died throughout the country. A third and final wave, albeit weaker than the second, was looming, but the influenza is never referenced in the house diary again. In January of 1919, classes resumed and the basketball season commenced without a hitch.
It would appear – although perhaps in a sense rendered fragmentary by the calamity they had experienced over the past months– that the Yuletide mass in St. Aloysius chapel that day was a celebration of more than one occasion.
Brogan had made good on his promise after all.
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