José Gregorio Hernández vs. Constance of Memphis

Today, in the second battle of a full week of Lent Madness action, it's José Gregorio Hernández squaring off against Constance of Memphis. These two contemporaneous saints and heroic healers have much to say to our current situation of living through a global pandemic.

Yesterday, Cecilia sung her way past Perpetua 54% to 46% to claim her spot in the Saintly Sixteen.

In case you missed the latest episode of Monday Madness, you can watch it here. Also, how could you ever miss an episode of Monday Madness?!

José Gregorio Hernández

On the streets of Caracas, as in cities all over Latin America, street vendors sell images of the saints—statues, dolls, prayer cards and candles, spangled with sequins or bits of fabric in rich hues. Among the golds, pinks, and blues, you can purchase a small statue of a man with dark hair and a neat little mustache, dressed smartly in a white doctor’s coat and a bowler hat. He is Dr. José Gregorio Hernández Cisneros, one of the most beloved saints of Venezuela.

José was born on October 26, 1864, to a poor family in the village of Isnotú in northwestern Venezuela. In school, José proved to have a natural aptitude for science and became one of Venezuela’s first physicians. He received a grant from the government to continue his studies in Paris; in the 1890s José returned home with what was the country’s first microscope and first blood pressure gauge. At several points, he considered the priesthood, but he ultimately chose to realize his devotion to God through medicine.

Dr. Hernández was at the forefront of medical research in the Americas, but his life’s work lay in direct care, most especially for the poor. He is known to this day as el medico de los pobres, “the doctor of the poor.” He loved house calls and paid patients’ medical bills. His devotion to God and his fellow Venezuelans was boundless, and he was spoken of as a faith healer even as he brought the most cutting-edge medicines to the poorest barrios of Caracas.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, he kept a tireless schedule, entering the rooms of the sick despite his own fragile health. Dr. Hernández died in 1919 when he was struck by a car upon exiting a pharmacy. He was there to buy medicine for those who could not afford it.

The number of people healed by Dr. Hernández in his life was quickly dwarfed by the countless miraculous healings he affected since his death, and it is hard to meet a Caraqueño today who has not experienced the healing gifts of el santo medico. Dr. Hernández is also considered a member of the spiritual court of La Reina Santa Maria de La Onza (Maria Lionza), an indigenous folk goddess. When the doctor was beatified in 2020, Pope Francis confessed that he, too, had prayed to Dr. Hernández for intercession in illness. Dr. Hernández gave his life to Christ in service of his neighbor. The depths of love for him across Venezuela attest to God’s own longing for healing for his people.

Collect for José Gregorio Hernández

O God, you have brought us near to an innumerable company of angels, and to the spirits of just men made perfect: Grant us during our earthly pilgrimage to abide in their fellowship, and in our heavenly country to become partakers of their joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Eva Suarez

Constance of Memphis

The story of Constance and her companions, the 1878 Martyrs of Memphis, has rightly resurfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we have again seen the heroic sacrifices made by people who care for the sick. At the age of 28, Episcopal nun Constance traveled from New York City with another sister, Thecla, to start a school in Memphis at the behest of their bishop. Constance ultimately became the headmistress of the school and the superior of the sisters of the Community of Saint Mary in Memphis.

In the late nineteenth century, Memphis residents mostly collected water from cisterns or wells and emptied their chamber pots into the streets, which drained into a bayou. After heavy rains, lowlands around the city turned into stagnant waters perfect for breeding mosquitos and outbreaks of yellow fever.

Although people didn’t know the virus was mosquito-borne, they knew drier, higher areas were safer. In the summer of 1878, as yellow fever began to spread, residents who could afford to flee Memphis did so. Constance and her sisters were resting in New York after the end of a school year when they learned of the outbreak. They arranged for money and supplies to be sent, then on August 20, they returned to a city of 20,000, smaller than half its pre-outbreak size of 50,000. The area around the Cathedral of St. Mary was the most infected of the city. The nuns and priests tending the sick refused to sleep outside the city, where they might have been safer, instead choosing to stay to offer care and comfort and look after a growing number of orphaned children.

On September 5, an editorial published in the Daily Avalanche read, “Great God! How his murderous work has increased. Those that are left are busy burying the dead.” But Constance did not blame God. True to her name, she remained faithful and steady in her service. She died on September 9 at the age of 33, with the final words, “Alleluia Osanna.” In addition to Constance, five other Episcopalians ministering in Memphis died, from September 6 to October 4: the Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons, Sister Thecla, Sister Ruth, the Rev. Louis S. Schuyler, and Sister Frances. While we are not all called to martyrdom, we are called to compassion and service in the spirit of Constance and her companions. Those called to the work of healthcare during this pandemic especially embody their Christian love.

Collect for Constance of Memphis

We give you thanks and praise, O God of compassion, for the heroic witness of the Martyrs of Memphis, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death; Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Amber Belldene


José Gregorio Hernández: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Constance of Memphis: St. Mary’s Cathedral, Memphis, used with permission


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83 comments on “José Gregorio Hernández vs. Constance of Memphis”

  1. Two health care workers! So hard to choose, but I must vote for Constance. Her story has always inspired me (especially during plague).

  2. As our Covid performance we ponder
    To St. Constance now may our thoughts wander
    From the plague many fled
    But she stayed there instead.
    Let us honor a brave first responder.

  3. Voted for Dr. Jose. His birthday (Month and date, not year) is four days earlier than mine. But it looks like I am again supporting the losing candidate

    1. I just voted for him and it looks like he's the leader. Both are wonderful candidates on Lent Madness. Something about him just struck my heart in a way that I wanted to give my vote to him.

    2. By the time I voted, Jose was leading, 59% to 41%. With nearly 5000 votes cast, I don't think mine was what gave him the lead 😉

  4. This is 2022's hardest choice so far. Modern saints, healers and helpers. I hope that whoever does not move to the next round will be back on our bracket as soon as possible.
    Thanks to both writers, too.

  5. The pictures in the home page header don't match today's post (as of 8.29am EDT). They're both the same and aren't either of those from the post.
    BTW, who is that person?

  6. It's a big week here in Memphis. Constance in Lent Madness and the University of Memphis in the NCAA tourney. Go Constance! Go Tigers!

  7. I remember the Martyrs of Memphis from an earlier Lent Madness. Yes, their struggle is very a propos to today's covid crisis. And I'm always interested in Episcopal monks and nuns. Nevertheless, I voted for the physician to the poor in South America. It's an opportunity to acknowledge the spiritualities of the southern hemisphere. I had never heard of Santa Maria de la Onza. An "onza" is a snow leopard; the snow leopard, or "ounce," lives in Asia. Maria Lionza herself is an indigenous spirit depicted naked riding a tapir. The Roman Catholic church tried to suppress the cult but failed. I suspect syncretism is the religion of the people everywhere. That the good doctor was killed while buying medicine for the poor only underscores his humble service. May healthcare be acknowledged as a universal human right. Priest/physician/healer: that seems right.

  8. Constance is worthy, but my heart belongs to Jose Gregorio Hernandez. Eva Suarez did a beautiful job with his essay, and every word is true. If anything, she understated Venezuelans devotion to him. Few is the home in Venezuela that does not have a small statue just like the picture on the home alter. Venezuelans recognize that he lived a life of service; he placed the well-being of all others before his own even in the moment of his death. In a nation that often does not care about those without money, Jose Gregorio, the santo medico, cared. The miracles just seem to show that beyond the grave Jose Gregorio still cares when the living empowered still do not. For Venezuelans in diaspora, he is a symbol of our identity. Though he would not ever speak in terms of pride, we do. As he still cares for us, we still care for our beloved Venezuela. Que viva el Santo Medico!

  9. This was a most difficult choice. Both extremely dedicated health professionals and devoted to their spiritual mission. In the end, I chose the individual who inspired me most, and that was José Hernandez. A doctor who truly valued people over money.

  10. Voting for the good doctor today, though Constance is also worthy. A tough choice. My niece in law to be is Venezuelan, so my vote will go to Dr. Jose.

  11. The good doctor went to the poor in ordinary times and places. I do not disregard the heroism of the Martyrs, but the example I wish to hold is caring for the poor when there is no pandemic, all our days.

  12. I live in Memphis and would recommend Constance! She was an Episcopalian so should be on the top of everyone’s list!! This city did not come back well from yellow fever since so many of the prominent people went to other places to avoid the sickness and never returned. St Mary’s Cathedral is the seat of the diocese of West Tennessee, and St. Mary’s School is one of the best in Memphis. Onward for Constance!!

  13. I had to honor all the healthcare workers in the U.S. that have sacrificed through the pandemic. Although Hernandez also deserves a vote.

  14. So sad these two are "head to head"! Both inspiring, worthy candidates for the Golden Halo.

  15. My grandmother was an Episcopal nursing nun and my doctor daughter was a resident working on the ICU during the height of Covid, so I had to vote for Constance. However, I really hope el santo medico wins- happy to see that he's ahead.

  16. As an Associate member of the Community of St. Mary, I voted for Constance. Both people are worthy of honor for their work.

  17. I live in Memphis so this is a no brainer. The sacrifice of the Martyrs of Memphis is an inspiration in these troubled times.

  18. Anyone who has read the story of Constance and her Companions would have to vote for her. She and her companions stayed when offered the choice of fleeing, ultimately costing most of them their lives.

  19. As a Memphis Episcopalian I have to vote for our hometown hero, Saint Constance. Constance and her Companions have been much in our thoughts in these past two years of our current pandemic as we follow her example in caring for the sick and the orphans of our present days

  20. What a tough choice. Still, I've always been inspired by Constance and her Companions, so she got my vote today.

  21. Toough choice (again).
    Today my vote goes to Dr. Hernández, in memory of another compassionate physician and advocate for the poor, the late Dr. Paul Farmer (who, himself,could be a worthy candidate in future competitions.)

  22. Both candidates are worthy, but I voted for Dr. Hernández out of respect for those whose dedication to Christ finds expression outside the church and also because of his efforts during the influenza pandemic of 1918, given its relevance to the pandemic of our time.

  23. Voting for Constance—she wasn’t flashy—just caring and dependable, and example for all of us.

  24. This was the toughest matchup so far this year. I voted, but I will be happy to support whichever candidate advances to the next round. Both are worthy of respect and recognition.