Fr. Patrick Ryan is viewed by many as a “martyr of charity” for his heroism in treating yellow fever victims.
During the late 19th century, a yellow fever epidemic was sweeping across the United States. It didn’t take long to reach Tennessee and when it did, very few people were protected from it.
According to History.com, “Memphis, a city of 50,000, had outbreaks in 1855, 1867 and 1873, with each outbreak getting progressively worse. Those who came down with yellow fever were quarantined in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading. Often, they were made to wear yellow jackets as a means of identification.”
In 1878 yellow fever reached Chattanooga and nearly everyone left the city, trying to escape the disease. However, Fr. Patrick Ryan, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, chose to stay behind to minister to the needs of the remaining victims.
According to the parish website, “Father Ryan is described by an eyewitness as ‘going from house to house in the worst-infected section of the city to find what he could do for the sick and needy.’ He continued ministering to his flock after he himself had contracted the dread disease — to within 48 hours of his death.”
Fr. Ryan was born in Ireland, but came to the United States with his family as a child and was eventually ordained a priest in 1869 at the Cathedral in Nashville. He was a holy priest and his act of heroism did not go unnoticed.
By ministering to the needs of yellow fever victims, Fr. Ryan put himself in harm’s way and died of the same disease. The Chattanooga Times in 1886 gives us a perfect summary of who Fr. Ryan was and how he was viewed by the citizens of the city.
“The brave and faithful priest literally laid down his life in the cause of humanity. Only the morning before he was stricken with the deadly pestilence, the writer met him on his rounds of mercy in the worst infected section of the city. Cheerfully but resolutely he was going from house to house to find what he could do for the sick and needy.
Then the work of the destroyer was upon him, but he looked the one whose spirit had conquered the flesh, like one so absorbed in of dangers of afflictions of his fellow men that he was unconscious of personal suffering, unmindful of personal evil.
We shall never, to the hour we close our eyes for the last time, forget the unselfish and efficient work of Father Ryan and his elder eminent brother, Father John.”
Bishop Richard F. Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville initiated the case of his canonization in 2016 and referred to him as a “martyr.”
I am looking forward to making my brother bishops aware of Father Ryan’s act of martyrdom. Even though it happened many years ago, Father Ryan’s work administering to the sick exemplifies charity and selflessness and remind us of how we should serve others.
Fr. Ryan is now considered a “Servant of God” as his life is being reviewed before his cause is submitted to the Vatican.