Amelia Island holly

Amelia Island holly
Amelia sand dune

Saturday, February 8, 2014


The history of this Island is an endless source of fascination for those willing to dig just below the surface,  Take the story of the little Yellow House in the Historic District. 

The historic marker in front of the house reads:

    How interesting, a tourist can mumble to themselves, as we did. Then promptly forgot about it.

Sometime later, we were exploring the old Bosque Bello cemetery here when we came upon a neat little plot of grave markers that piqued our curiosity.  It seemed to be the plot where nuns were laid to rest.  We were now even more curious and found out a little more of their story.

Then this past Christmas,a group of the Island  Knights of Columbus, including my husband, volunteered to tend the Sister's grave site and I went along with my camera.

One of the things we noted was that two of the graves were those of young Sisters who had died the same day.  This is one of them, Mother Marie Celenie Joubert age 32 years, the other was of Sister De Sales, age 22 years.  In the first photo of the plot above their graves are next to each other on the right.

Finally, a docent neighbor who volunteers at our Amelia Island Museum of History directed me to  someone there who would have me all the information I needed for this inspiring history. 
And that they did!

The Sisters of St. Joseph, of the Order of our two Sisters and their other Sisters were based in Le Puy, France.  At a request from a Bishop they had sent six Sisters to Jacksonville and then to the Island to teach the children.  Eventually they resided at the little Yellow house and made it their convent.  In 1877 the Sisters had made a retreat in Jacksonville when an epidemic of Yellow Fever began raging in the Jacksonville area and its environs including Amelia Island.  Armed guards were posted to keep the entire area under quarantine.

 The sisters determined to return to the Island. Four of them did: Mother Celenie, Sister Marie de Sales, Sister Xavier and Sister Mary Louise.  They found a "desolated Fernandina, with empty homes and businesses and deserted streets.  A peculiar odor filled the air perhaps from fumigation efforts.  Not stopping at their house, they went immediately to the bedsides of the fever victims…."  
"One Protestant doctor said, 'You have, my Sisters, more courage than a soldier on the battlefield."

Note: The Island population at that time was 1600 people, 300 of whom were Catholics.
                                                1100 contracted the disease, 94 died.
          The epidemic raged on for 7 months.  The disease is viral, carried and spread through mosquito bites of the female infected Aeses Aegypti mosquito or an uninfected carrier one.  The disease seemed to hit port cities (such as Fernandina). The bilges of standing water were perfect breeding grounds.
The disease was often called Swamp Miasma or Yellow Jack as it would occur near marshy lowlands, another characteristic of Amelia Island.  It had a propensity to strike adults in their prime and not children and the elderly.  The incubation period, once bitten, was 2-3 days. 
 If the victim did not fall ill, they were henceforth immune.

A medical practice in those days was to place all four feet of a patient's bed in containers of water so as to keep vermin away.  It was of course, a perfect breeding place for mosquitoes.  If a patient survived the disease, they had lifelong immunity. Antibiotics had not been discovered, nor had the epidemiology of the disease been identified.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician during epidemics in Philadelphia finally isolated the cause of the disease.  It would not be identified until the 20th century. Meanwhile, treatment consisted of purgatives, wine or champagne, and sometimes blood letting.

From calmly teaching little ones, the sisters were thrust into the role of nurses and more.  People on the Island panicked and, not understanding the disease, left dying and ill patients on the steps of the convent. The sisters nursed them, sewed their shrouds, and even buried the dead.  They went house to house caring for people. It mattered not if they were white or back, or Catholic or not. They were tirelessly led by their superior, Mother Celenie.  She, and her dear friend and Sister, Sr. De Sales, contracted the disease themselves, and although nearly all the Sisters fell ill at one time or another, only those two did not survive.  They died 8 hours within each other and were buried within 2 hours of their deaths in the back yard of the Convent.  Five other Sisters arrived just after the deaths of the Sisters.  Those Sisters recalled that back at the Retreat in Jacksonville, on hearing of the epidemic in Fernandina, Sister Celenie had told another Sister there that she "would not see her again, but that they would meet again in heaven."  The Sister also described Mother Celenie as "having a celestial air about her."

             Here is a photograph of Mother Celenie.  We do not have one of Sr. De Sales. 
                  If you visit the Parish Hall of St. Michael's Catholic Church on the Island,
                              you can see all of the Sisters that were here at the time.

The history of this heroic Island episode would be interesting enough.  However, many, many years later when the Sisters were disinterred for burial in Bosque Bello the coffins were, of course, opened by an undertaker.  He stated that the two women were exactly as they had been at the time of their deaths, no decomposition had taken place.  Also, when he opened the coffins, there was an odor of roses.  This indeed had been reported in the newspapers. Keep in mind at the time of their deaths there was no embalmment nor were the coffins other than pine or some common wood.

In the annals of Island history this one stands out as a story of heroism.  We cannot go by the little Yellow House without thinking of those brave women.  

The history of our Island is deep and interesting.  I hope to share more of it.


Some of this information was gleaned from literature (newspaper articles, etc) and excerpts from The Diary of Sister Catherine, a St. Joseph's Sister, and from the online source below.  Another Sister, Sister Rose of Lima, died in Jacksonville of Yellow Fever also during the epidemic. Thanks to the Amelia Island Museum of History for their help.

For more information see

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