Archives reveal Duchesne life during 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic

Archivist Margo Bieker, A71, uncovered House Journal entries from 1918 which shed light on how Duchesne operated during the flu pandemic.

OMAHA – As Duchesne begins its second week of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic it is not without precedent. The school was closed for at least four weeks in 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic, a search of the Duchesne College and Academy archives has revealed.

The Religious of the Sacred Heart and the greater Omaha community relied on precautions similar to social distancing and closures seen today to stop the spread of the virus, with mixed results.

The first reference to the flu appears in the House Journal on October 7, 1918, when the unidentified nun keeping the journal wrote schools, churches, theatres, and other public places were closed. The community prayed for an end to the spread of the disease, including a novena (the Duchesne community is doing the same today). The Journal reveals schools were closed and students were sent home for four weeks, from early October to early November, as people tried to stop the virus from spreading. The Journal notes the spread was particularly severe in the eastern part of the United States.

In 2020, students are completing their coursework online using email, phone calls, and video conferencing. In 1918, students had to attend class on Saturday and give up a week of Christmas vacation to make up for lost school days. Just a week after students returned to class following the four-week closure, the first World War ended on November 11, 1918.

The relief brought by Armistice Day was short-lived, however, when the religious noted on November 15, a mild form of influenza was spreading among some of the girls living at Duchesne. The RSCJ were worried but found encouragement when a statue of St. Michael arrived at Duchesne on the same day. They believed it was a sign of God’s protection. “We are full of confidence that our cause is in good hands,” the nun wrote.

The increasing cases of flu were enough for school leaders to send the “boarders” home again on November 17. Two days later, students not living at the school returned for class. The entry notes 16 girls became sick with the flu but thankfully, all survived. The Religious of the Sacred Heart were overjoyed when one girl, whose case was becoming serious, recovered after the application of “a relic of our Blessed Mother Foundress, Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat.”

House Journal: Park Place – Duchesne

October 7, 1918

October 7, 1918 House Journal entry

“All the schools are closed on account of the terrible epidemic of influenza that is so prevalent in the east. Churches, theatres, schools and other places of public gatherings are closed in the hope of checking the spread of the disease.”

November 4, 1918

“The Day pupils returned after four weeks of enforced absence. A novena of prayer, fidelity, and penance was made by the Community that both the Community and the children would escape what seems to be a veritable plague. In order to supplement for missed classes, the day pupils are to attend Saturday sessions and sacrifice a week of Christmas holidays.”

November 11 – 19, 1918

November 11

The Armistice for the cessation of hostilities was signed by Germany leaving the Allies victorious in the great World War. (Indiscernible writing. Possibly in French.)

November 15

“A few cases of influenza in a mild form appeared among the borders. A strange coincidence occurred. A statue of St. Michael had been promised in the hope that the great Archangel would protect the Community and the children from the epidemic. The very day the flu attacked some of the children St. Michael arrived! We are full of confidence that our cause is in good hands.”

November 17

“As several cases of influenza appeared Reverend Mother thought it wise to send home for a week the boarders not yet attacked. The day pupils were dismissed at half-past two.”

November 19

“Saint Elizabeth, the patron of the house, brought back the day pupils, who are thus enabled to make up lost classes during the enforced quarantine absence. There were only sixteen cases among the boarders here, all mild cases. One which threatened to be serious was checked remarkably by the application of a relic of our Blessed Mother Foundress.”