Stephen Medd memorializes the Sisters of St. Joseph

Amidst COVID-19, local singer-songwriter revisits forgotten pandemic history

Stephen Medd performs live in Napanee.
Barry Lovegrove

Amid COVID-19, local singer-songwriter Stephen Medd wrote “Sisters of St. Joseph,” a historical ballad, in commemoration of the nuns on the frontline of the 1847 typhus epidemic.

In an interview with The Journal, Medd spoke about his songwriting career and what inspired him to write about the healthcare heroes who battled the typhus outbreak.

Twenty-one years ago, Medd wrote and recorded the first three songs Avril Lavigne ever performed. Like Medd, Lavigne is originally from Napanee. He said the project she took part in was originated by him as a means of inspiring creativity in the Kingston and Napanee area.

Since then, Medd has been paying special attention to the history of the region.

“Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of historical ballads about the region we live in: Kingston, Napanee, and the Bay of Quinte area,” Medd said.

Since 2019, Medd has been composing ballads on obscure pieces of regional history, important events from the past which some people can overlook. His collection, titled If Lilacs Could Sing, is available on YouTube.

In preparation for volume two of Lilacs and in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Medd began researching past epidemics that have hit the Kingston area. Through this, he stumbled across the incredible story of the Sisters of St. Joseph church and their heroism during the typhus outbreak.

Medd explained that the sisters were nuns of the St. Joseph church who had come to Kingston from Montreal with the intention of staffing the newly-built Hotel Dieu, a hospital on Brock Street.

However, in 1847, when many Irish immigrants were landing in Kingston to escape the famine, an infectious disease known as typhus swept through their population, and the sisters became the first responders to an epidemic—something they had never signed up for.

“They were first responders but they were also last responders,” Medd said. “Not only did they provide nursing care that so many of these infected people needed, they also provided [victims] the care they needed on their final breath.”

Medd’s song explains how the sisters provided some measure of peace to the sick and dying in their final moments, bravely exposing themselves to infection in the process.

The singer-songwriter feels a great deal of empathy for the Irish immigrants of the late 1840s, who found themselves in dire straits—escaping famine only to wind up in an epidemic.

“I have unshakable empathy for the people I’ve written songs about because you get so deep into the research and the evolution of the song that these people almost become your kindred spirits or your friends,” Medd said. “I think it’s a lot like an actor who’s trying to get into character. I get that sensation when I write these ballads.”

Medd wrote “Sisters of St. Joseph” from the perspective of an Irish mother struggling to care for her child after the death of her husband. The lyrics are in her words as she describes what she sees upon arriving in Kingston.

“I wanted to take the perspective of a young mother who’s left her homeland of Ireland with her husband who dies at sea and she’s left with a baby to feed,” Medd said.

In the song, the young mother bears witness to the staggering scale of her people’s suffering.

“As she lands on the Kingston wharf,” Medd continued, “she’s escorted down […] to the hospital grounds, and in doing so, she’s passing all kinds of faces that she recognized because these people are left destitute in the streets of Kingston.”

He explained this character isn’t a specific historical figure but an analog for all the Irish immigrants at the time, which Medd uses to relay what was happening in Kingston during 1847 and what it would’ve felt like to really be there.

“She also passes a massive trench—this is all true— that existed to bury up to 1,400 to 1,500 people that had died from the typhus epidemic,” Medd said. “This massive grave was located on the grounds of Kingston General Hospital.”

The song goes on to tell about the typhus sheds situated around Kingston General Hospital where infected people were quarantined.

“I knew this was a story I needed to tell, at least for my own peace of mind, because it’s not a story that’s repeated too often and I thought it might be quite appropriate to tell at this time when the world is suffering a pandemic.”

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