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The Hand of Providence

From Rev. Jeremy Simons, Cathedral Chaplain
March 17, 2020

In 1918 Philadelphia was the epicenter of the greatest epidemic in world history in terms of the number of lives lost, with 16,000 dying in the city that year, and something like 50 million worldwide. It was the Spanish flu and it had a significant impact on Bryn Athyn, with many coming down with it, including George and Fidelia de Charms. Church services and classes were called off for a time.
While 1918 was the year that it did the most damage, the epidemic waxed and waned for over a decade, with school being called off for weeks at a time, as late as 1929. There were other epidemics as well that people remember from that era – scarlet fever, whooping cough, polio, and diphtheria.
My own family was seriously affected by the influenza in 1929, when both my grandfather Samuel Simons and my uncle Alden Simons died of the disease one day apart in January. In addition, my Aunt Una was in a coma for weeks and it affected her all of her life.
At the memorial service for Sam and Alden, the Bishop emphasized the hand of providence and the need to gain a higher perspective on their tragic deaths.
The Bryn Athyn community held my grandmother, Gertrude Alden Simons, and the remaining seven children with great care. My father and Aunt Carolyn were taken in by their South Avenue neighbors and good friends–the Harold Pitcairns, who had just moved into Cairncrest. Others helped in different ways, just as the nation was entering the Great Depression.
Influenza was a mystery to science in the 1920s and they had few effective ways to deal with it other than quarantine. If it had happened today, my grandfather at age 52 would not have continued going to work while sick, riding the train to Chester each day. My uncle would not have returned to school at Antioch in Ohio, sleeping in an unheated dormitory as sick as he was.
The hand of providence is not about bringing on illnesses and epidemics like the ones a hundred years ago, or like the one we are experiencing now.
Instead the hand of providence is about the ways that people work hard to prevent sickness, how they care for those affected, and how we all cooperate with the directives of our health agencies. This isn’t always easy, and our medical and economic anxieties are not fun to deal with.
According to statistics that I have seen, not only epidemics, but many forms of natural and human-caused disasters, have dramatically decreased in numbers and severity over the past century. We live in a better world in terms of crime, hunger, disease, child mortality, and many other measures. I am grateful for the love, knowledge and experience that so many people bring to these things. This is the Lord’s guiding hand.


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