New Brunswick

Pandemic parallels: Moncton church transformed into hospital during 1918 Spanish flu

Rev. Richard Jackson's congregation is finding comfort in the story of how the First Baptist Church responded in 1918 by setting up a makeshift hospital, when the second wave of the Spanish influenza pandemic killed millions. 

'We're learning about sacrifice': Pastor points to perseverance, duty, compassion of WWI generation

Doctors and nurses stand on the steps of Moncton's First Baptist Church on Nov. 11, 1918. It was the day World War I ended, and the day they closed their makeshift Spanish influenza hospital that had been set up inside the church. (Submitted by Rev. RIchard Jackson)

Walking through Moncton's First Baptist Church, you can smell the old books, see the morning light pouring through the stained glass windows, and hear the organist practising alone in the sanctuary.

Rev. Richard Jackson points out three large rooms that, more than 100 years ago, were transformed into a makeshift hospital for patients sick with the Spanish flu.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, he has often thought of this time in the church's history, and has been sharing the parallels with his parishioners. 

"We've been in this situation before and we've not only survived, we've thrived," he said.

Pastor Richard, as he is known to his congregation, says he has been feeling sorry for himself. He can't preach live to his congregation on Sundays because of the self-isolation, and he can't do things he normally would with his children.

"I think I have it pretty rough but [the World War I] generation and the Second World War generation — they are the ones who really knew what it was to sacrifice for a cause bigger than ourselves."

Rev. Richard Jackson has told the story of how the congregation responded to the Spanish influenza which occurred during the First World War, in hopes of inspiring people during the current COVID-19 pandemic. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

A modern-day, non-fiction fable

Jackson is sharing the story of how the First Baptist Church congregation responded in 1918, when the second wave of the Spanish influenza pandemic killed millions, as a sort of non-fiction fable. 

"I continue to talk about it because people want to hear the story over and over again," the pastor said. "People are so interested, just fascinated and encouraged by it."

Like many of the most memorable stories, the challenges for the church came in threes.

This Moncton church survived the second wave of the 1918 Spanish flu that killed millions by setting up a makeshift hospital. 2:46

Fire, war, pandemic

The tale begins in 1913, when the wooden church that was home to the congregation burned down and within two days, according to Jackson, the church leadership decided to rebuild.

The second challenge came in the middle of that re-build, when World War I began and many of the church's young people left New Brunswick to help in the effort.

"It would have been so easy for the church to say, 'We can't do this, we can't continue.' Instead of doing that they battened down the hatches and they said, 'We are going to get this church built.'"

Moncton's First Baptist Church was destroyed by fire in 1913, and rebuilt in stone. It re-opened in 1915 at the corner of Queen and Church Streets. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

That perseverance turned out to be a turning point in the story.

The new, much larger church opened in 1915 and just a few years later Spanish influenza spread around the world.

In 1918, during the second and most severe wave, Moncton's hospital was overflowing and had no more room for patients suffering with the flu.

The Pastor at Moncton's First Baptist Church shares the story of how the community stepped up during the 1918 pandemic. 7:08

Jackson said a medical missionary just happened to be home on furlough from India and he saw an opportunity to help.

"Dr. Hinson West — he got the idea of opening up the new church to patients and so they took in 25 influenza patients."

Jackson said West, along with another local doctor and many nurses, volunteered to care for the patients in three makeshift wards and "they only lost two."

"It's an amazing story of a church reacting in a crisis in a way that was positive and helpful."

This is one of three rooms at Moncton's First Baptist Church that was used as a hospital ward for patients with the Spanish flu. Doctors and nurses volunteered to care for 25 patients there in 1918 when the hospital was full. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Individual stories live on

Jackson loves to talk about the heroes in this non-fiction fable: Dr. Hinson West and a young woman named Beulah Cutler, who came forward to help even though she had no nursing experience.

"She was working every night for Canadian National Railway as a telegraph operator so she worked from 6 to 11 doing that, she went home and went to bed for a few hours, she got up every morning and was here at the church at 7 a.m. and worked until 4 p.m. as a nurse…and did that for the six weeks that the hospital was open."

Jackson describes Dr. West as a "typical missionary," who always had to be working and helping people.

A photo of Dr. Hinson West, seen here with his family, hangs at the Moncton First Baptist Church. He was a missionary in India who, while on furlough in Moncton, cared for patients with the Spanish flu in makeshift hospital wards set up inside the church. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Present inspired by past

Jackson believes the examples set by those who helped during the past pandemic are inspiring his congregation today.

While the first wave of COVID-19 has proven to be mild in New Brunswick so far, his members and ministers are offering support through online bible studies, streaming church services and by collecting and distributing food to families who are struggling.

It may not be a hospital, but Jackson said his parishioners are helping those who are in need of food and fellowship.

"We have such a history of courageous outreach in practical ways in our communities and sometimes I'm concerned that churches can forget that and I'm hoping that this will be a reminder."

Rev. RIchard Jackson stands on the same steps at Moncton's First Baptist Church, where more than 100 years ago doctors and nurses stood as they celebrated the end of World War I and the closure of a makeshift hospital inside the church for patients with the Spanish flu. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

The Reverend proudly shows off the grainy photo of the 15 doctors and nurses, including Hinson and Cutler, who stepped up to help during the 1918 pandemic.

They are standing on the steps of the church on Nov. 11, 1918, which was the same day World War I ended.

"You ask about lessons that were learned? We're learning about sacrifice, what it means to really give up things bigger and beyond ourselves," Jackson said.

For Jackson, that is the moral of this story.

About the Author

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now