March 2, 1919
Influenza Poster on Public Building
In March 1919 Newfoundland and Labrador was being ravaged with the dreaded Influenza Epidemic.
The local government and the churches were in the fore front of the fight against the spread of the dreaded disease. In St. John’s, on March 2, 1919, the Catholic Archbishop Edward Patrick Roche, issued a Pastoral Letter removing any obligation of fast and abstinence during the 40 days of Lent. The rationale was that if Roman Catholics were observing the ritual Lenten fast and rules of abstinence that they might be weakening their immune systems making them more susceptible to the pandemic.
On March 12, 1919 a notice was read in all churches that “Owing to the prevalence of influenza among the people, His Grace the Archbishop by the authority of the Holy See, grants during this present Lent, a general dispensation from the fast, except on Good Friday”
The move, thought small was unprecedented. One of the many steps that were taken to try and stop the spread of the disease.
St. John’s as an international port of call for ships from around the world was exposed to all the good and ill that came with its geographical location. In 1918 with the influenza epidemic raging throughout the world, it was only a matter of time before the province became vulnerable to the disease.
The pandemic reached Newfoundland on 30 September 1918 when a steamer carrying three infected crewmen docked at St. John’s harbour. Three more infected sailors arrived at Burin on October 4 and they travelled by rail to St. John’s for treatment. A doctor diagnosed the city’s first two local cases of influenza the following day and sent both people to a hospital. Within two weeks, newspapers reported that several hundred people were infected in St. John’s.
Soon after the outbreak, government officials closed many public buildings in St. John’s, including schools, churches, and meeting halls, and introduced quarantine regulations for incoming ships. Many outport communities also closed public buildings to curb the spread of influenza. By the time the epidemic was over, 62 deaths were reported in St. John’s and 170 more in outport Newfoundland.
The effects were most devastating in Labrador, where the disease killed close to one third of the Inuit population and forced some communities out of existence. Death rates were particularly high in the Inuit villages of Okak and Hebron.
Recommended Archival Collection: At the R.C. Archdiocese of St. John’s, Archbishop E.P. Roche, Pastoral Lenten Regulations, 107/32/4 Roman Catholic Cathedral Parish Publication fonds.
Recommended Reading: Budgell, Anne. “The Spanish Influenza of 1918 in Okak and Hebron,Labrador.” Unpublished paper for History 4671, Memorial University of Newfoundland. Fall 1994.