Outbreak on the Hill

It was a rapidly spreading and fast killing disease. According to historian Jennifer Rosenberg, the symptoms began with severe fatigue, fever and headache. Soon the infected individual’s skin would begin to turn so blue that his/her original ethnicity was unrecognizable.

Violent coughing would ensue and often tear the abdominal muscles of the victims with its force. Blood would then begin spewing from the victim’s mouth, ears and nose, followed by uncontrollable vomiting, urination and defecation. Most died within 48 hours of contracting the virus.

This dark time in history later became known as the “1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic.” Between 1918 and 1919, it eliminated nearly five percent of the world’s population, including students from Saint Mary’s Preparatory School for Boys.

Long before Saint Mary Hall was used for administrative purposes for Seton Hill University, it was called Saint Mary’s Seminary. The building housed students of Saint Mary’s Preparatory School for Boys, which educated boys from first to eighth grade.

Shown above is Saint Mary's School for Boys, labeled as the "home economics laboratories and practice house." Photo courtesy of the Seton Hill Archives.

Shown above is Saint Mary’s School for Boys, labeled as the “home economics laboratories and practice house.” Photo courtesy of the Seton Hill Archives.

Established by the Sisters of Charity in 1908, the building housed the Sisters of Charity. It was connected to the Mother House by passages on three floors. However, Saint Mary’s School did not originate at Seton Hill. In fact, the students had transferred from Blairsville, Pa.

As Sister Mary Electa Boyle, a member of the Sisters of Charity who administered the early curriculum of Seton Hill, writes in “Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity in Western Pennsylvania”, “It [Saint Mary’s School] owed its inception to an act of simple charity and sincere compassion on the part of the Sisters at Saint Mary’s Convent in Blairsville.”

In 1880, Reverend Edward M. McKeever asked the Sisters to care for his three young nephews after his sister-in-law had died. The Sisters turned one of the convent rooms into a nursery-dormitory. These three children, ages ranging from one to five, were the very first boys to attend Saint Mary’s School for Boys.

A year later, the school grew in size as Sisters Clement and Constance Dunn’s nephews were added to the school after the death of their mothers. In a similar fashion, the school slowly grew in size to house nearly thirty students. In April of 1889, the boys were moved to Seton Hill. They stayed in the old Academy building until Saint Mary’s Seminary was built 19 years later.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu reached Saint Mary’s Preparatory School for Boys. Infirmary records, handwritten by the Sisters of Charity, indicate a significant influx of student illness around this time, including the death of student Charles Brown in late 1917. Sister Maria James wrote in Saint Mary’s School for Boys grades 6-7-8 Attendance Book (1915-1921) that students were, “Dismissed on account of Influenza,” on Dec. 7, 1918. The school did not reconvene until the following year.
As SHU Archivist Bill Black reflects, “This simple statement documents the first and only time in the history of Seton Hill of a total closure of the Seton Hill schools with the students being sent home.”

There are various theories of where exactly the Spanish Flu originated. Most historians believe that the pandemic came from either Europe or Asia. However, author and historian John M. Barry published a study in 2004 titled, “The Great Influenza: the Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,” that proved otherwise.

This scanned image of the Saint Mary's attendance book shows the records of the sixth-eighth grade boys. The students were "dismissed on account of influenza" in December 1918. Photo courtesy of the Seton Hill Archives.

This scanned image of the Saint Mary’s attendance book shows the records of the sixth-eighth grade boys. The students were “dismissed on account of influenza” in December 1918. Photo courtesy of the Seton Hill Archives.

Barry discovered that the first accounts of the Spanish Flu arose in Haskell County, Kansas, where Dr. Loring Miner documented various patients coming down with a deadly flu. The influenza then made its way across three hundred miles to Camp Funston. All soldiers went out to Camp Funston for training during WWI and friends and family came to visit them during this process. From Camp Funston, the disease spread across the United States the subsequent continents in which the soldiers were stationed.

Culturally, in a time where WWI was supposed to unite people within nations, the Spanish Flu kept people distant from one another. 94-year-old William H. Sardo Jr. spoke out about his experiences during the influenza in the Associated Press article, “Survivors remember 1918 global flu pandemic: Plague could teach lessons about how to prepare for future flu outbreak,” in 2006.

Sardo was six years old when the Spanish Flu broke out (around the same age as boys starting at Saint Mary’s Preparatory School for Boys). His family owned a funeral home in Washington, D.C. He recalls the massive influx of dead bodies around the time of the flu pandemic. Sardo was kept separated from everyone he knew. “It changed a lot of society,” he said. “We became more individualistic.”

“Cover up each cough and sneeze. If you don’t, you’ll spread the disease” was a common slogan of the time.

As opposed to most other accounts of influenzas, the Spanish Flu neither targeted the weak or old, but rather young and healthy men and women. Government health officials closed schools and advised the general public to wear medical facemasks. Children even constructed a nursery rhyme about how rapidly the Spanish Flu could spread from one victim to the next that went as follows:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And In-flu-enza

The “1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic” killed an estimated 50-100 million people, claiming more lives than WWI. In spite of the school’s run-in with the disease, Saint Mary’s Preparatory School for Boys continued to educate young men for 47 years.

In 1927, the school was discontinued in order to house the Home Economics Department for the up-and-coming college. Alumni of the school went on to become politicians, priests, businessmen, soldiers and average do-gooding citizens. Sister Mary Electa Boyle wrote in “Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity in Western Pennsylvania,” that Saint Mary’s Preparatory School for Boys, “had been a pioneer among schools for small boys, [and] remained one of the best-known of its kind.”

The hill from which SHU gets its name was home to various schools throughout time. From 1880 until 1927, SHU was home to Saint Mary’s Preparatory School for Boys. Even though the school was forced to close down for a year because of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, it went on to produce young men that benefited society, whether they were soldiers, doctors or just common citizens working to better the place in which they lived. Even when SHU was Saint Mary’s Preparatory School for Boys, the university school motto still remained: Hazard Yet Forward.

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