Monday, June 18, 2012

That Dread White Plague Again

It hardly takes much time in researching family history roots in the city of Chicago to see that tuberculosis played a looming role in the ebb and flow of life events there. It seems, also, that among Agnes Tully Stevens’ personal papers, there were many letters from priests who had been smitten with the disease. Banished to far-away sanitaria in higher, drier climes, they were doomed to spend their days separated from all they knew and loved—indeed, anyone who held the possibility of bestowing upon them any role of significance.

Agnes was not the only one in the family to serve as such a correspondent. She inherited this proclivity from her mother, Catherine Malloy Tully, who also sought to connect and comfort with her pen those sent far away—whether for service or disease.

Nearly ten months after Catherine had lost her husband, John Tully, a letter arrived for her from Albuquerque. It was meant as a letter of condolence, but, as the writer explained, the expression of this sentiment was unavoidably delayed due to his own difficulties which had brought him to that location.

The writer was a young man by the name of Benedict Desmond, but a note inscribed by Catherine on the envelope, “Ben’s letter,” reveals a more familiar nickname. He was a Jesuit student, being at the time twenty two years of age. Second son of a woman widowed many years before, Ben had been raised in a town well over one hundred miles removed from Chicago. His pursuit of service with the Society of Jesus—or, as it is more commonly called, Jesuits—required a path of training acknowledged as one of the longest terms of formation for priesthood within the Catholic church. Undoubtedly, with those religious requirements, this rural Illinois student’s educational path brought him to the city of Chicago; perhaps he found himself one of the student boarders hosted by the Tully family. Or perhaps, Catherine Tully served as a self-appointed adoptive “mom” to many such students as this Ben.

Whatever his role in Chicago preceding this 1907 letter, Ben was now residing at an institution founded by the Sisters of Charity not many years prior to his arrival. Saint Joseph’s Sanitarium, in what was then the New Mexico Territory, was built in preparation for the waves of tuberculosis victims yet to come to the southwest, seeking—hoping for—treatment.

In Ben’s case, it seemed the hope was catching. Perhaps his sentiment regarding “happy days that are soon to come” was not only meant for the mourning widow he was addressing, but for himself as well.

                                                                       St. Joseph’s San.,
                                                                       Albuquerque, N. M.
                                                                       Dec. 16, 1907.
Mrs. Tully.

Dear friend,
            Having heard of Mr. Tully’s death through my mother, I had intended to write you a few words of condolence when I myself was stricken with the dread White Plague. Since my sickness and subsequent removal to Albuquerque, I have not done much writing to any outside my family.
            But since Christmas is so near and since I am improving so fast that I can now write with more safety than heretofore, I could not forbear a few words, of condolence for the sorrow that is past, and of greeting for the happy days that are soon to come.


  1. Interesting.. I have never heard of TB called the white plague before..I learn something new everyday:)

  2. I'm glad they have basically gotten rid of TB. I read a write up on the White Plague and it sounds horrible.


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