2005 jul 23 Pilgrim Springs Cemetary Cross740

One hundred years ago the Seward Peninsula was struck by the infamous Spanish Flu. Two Jesuit priests, Frs. Bellarmine Lafortune, S.J., and Frederick Ruppert, S.J., witnessed firsthand the devastating effects. It was estimated that one-third of the world’s population became infected with the virus and at least 50 million died worldwide. Of the 1,113 influenza deaths in Alaska between 1918-1919, 820 deaths were in the Seward Peninsula as the first wave of the pandemic hit the area in November 1918. The two priests were in the center of the hardest affected area of Alaska and were desperate to care for the sick and dying.One hundred years ago the Seward Peninsula was struck by the infamous Spanish Flu. Two Jesuit priests, Frs. Bellarmine Lafortune, S.J., and Frederick Ruppert, S.J., witnessed firsthand the devastating effects. It was estimated that one-third of the world’s population became infected with the virus and at least 50 million died worldwide. Of the 1,113 influenza deaths in Alaska between 1918-1919, 820 deaths were in the Seward Peninsula as the first wave of the pandemic hit the area in November 1918. The two priests were in the center of the hardest affected area of Alaska and were desperate to care for the sick and dying.

 

Nome had a population of about 700 non-Native people and 300 Native people when the steamship Victoria arrived on October 20, 1918. An additional 80 military personnel were stationed at Fort Davis, three miles away. At the time, Fr. Ruppert was one of two Jesuit priests in the Seward Peninsula. While Fr. Ruppert was ministering to the residents of Nome, Fr. Lafortune was establishing a new mission at Pilgrim Hot Springs, 80 miles north of Nome. 

Even with a quarantine, the disease was transmitted by the crew of the Victoria during the transfer of mail to Nome’s residents. As the ship prepared to leave, Nome’s only doctor came down with double pneumonia. This left the military doctor at Fort Davis as the only physician in the area. Four days later, there were so many cases of influenza that the doctor reported he could no longer handle the situation. An emergency meeting was called by Nome’s mayor and town council where they decided to reopen the abandoned Catholic hospital to handle the sick. Fr. Ruppert reported to his superior, “They asked me to be superintendent, which meant to keep a chair warm in the office and dispense a few words of cheer to the sick. But I felt I had some noble traditions of the Society in the service of the plague stricken to uphold, and with God’s help tried to do my bit. The hospital is a large one and was soon filled to its capacity for what nurses were available. The staff, the first month, was an uncertain one. All were without training or experience, and one hardly ever knew who could be counted on from day to day. However, the Lord always provided so that at all times we were at least able to get along.”

By chance as the number of sick increased, Fr. Lafortune unexpectedly arrived in Nome. He made quick work visiting the sick everywhere. Fr. Ruppert recalled, “Day by day things got worse. It was estimated that about fifty percent of the non-Native population was down with the flu before the middle of November.” He continued, “Father Lafortune was indefatigable in working for the Eskimos. He was seen constantly hurrying to and fro and from one end of town to the other on his dog team. His example spurred the others into action. Soon many hands were stretched forth for relieving the deplorable conditions, but the awful plague had wrought frightful ravages. Most had died or were dying, some had frozen to death; for the most part, only children were left. What remained was only the wreckage. Of, the Nome Natives, a population of less than three hundred, about fifty children remain and fifty adults.”

Fr. Ruppert ended his report with, “After two months and a half of work, I had become worn out. The doctor told Fr. Lafortune to take me away for a few weeks rest. So, when the hospital closed January 19, I went away with Fr. Lafortune and remained at the Springs about three weeks. I am feeling well again, thank God. Fr. Lafortune is the best of health. Both were spared from the flu.”

It would take time for both priests to recover from the crisis. They would spend the next several years building an orphanage at Pilgrim Hot Springs. Fr. Ruppert would freeze to death in 1923 while, attempting to deliver by dog sled, oranges as Christmas gifts to the orphans at Pilgrim Hot Springs. He is buried in a small cemetery at Pilgrim Hot Springs, close to a mass grave of those who died during the pandemic. Fr. Lafortune would continue ministering in the Seward Peninsula, especially to the Native population. He would spend another 20 years moving back and forth between Nome and King Island. Fr. Lafortune suffered a stroke while celebrating Mass in Nome in July 1940, and died on October 22, in Fairbanks. 


Excerpts from Woodstock Letters, Vol. XLVIII., ALASKA. A letter of Rev. Father Ruppert to Very Rev. Father F. C. Dillon, Provincial of California; NOME, ALASKA, February 24, 1919.