An LA priest’s forgotten Black Plague heroism
Dr. Jeffrey S. Copeland and Eileen O'Brien Nov. 6, 2018
Our Lady Queen of Angels (“La Placita”) is the oldest Catholic parish in the city of Los Angeles. Today, those who attend services there come from all over the city and throughout the country.
Where they don’t come from is the immediate area because, as Father Arturo Corral Nevárez recently pointed out, the church doesn’t have a surrounding neighborhood of parishioners, as is the case with most churches.
However, this wasn't always the case. In 1924, there were more than 2,500 individuals living in the immediate area, known at the time as the Macy Street District, and La Placita was the hub and focal point of the community.
In late September of that year, everything changed when Los Angeles was visited by one of humankind’s ancient enemies: the Black Plague.
A ship carrying cargo from the Orient docked at a relatively new section of the Port of Los Angeles. One of the crates aboard that ship found its way to the Mexican-American community, and inside that crate, along with its regular goods, were rats that hosted plague-carrying fleas.
Soon, some of La Placita’s parishioners became ill, but doctors at first misdiagnosed the symptoms and told those who were stricken simply to get some rest and let whatever they had run its course.
Perhaps the first hero in fighting this outbreak was Father Medardo Brualla, CMF, a priest at La Placita and a member of the Claretian order. At the time, the Claretians were a relatively new order, founded by St. Anthony Claret in Spain in 1849, and coming to the United States in 1902.
Given their founder’s Spanish roots, the Claretians had always been a strong presence in the Hispanic community, and were known for reaching out to the poor and dispossessed.
As the plague made its way through the neighborhood, Brualla made calls to the homes of those who fell ill to offer them help. Realizing that the situation was much more serious than the medical community thought, Brualla contacted physicians at Los Angeles County Hospital, who were able to determine the illness was pneumonic plague.
Once the correct diagnosis was made, city officials and other prominent groups in and around Los Angeles decided the best way to handle the illness was to set up a quarantine around the Macy Street District.
The quarantine was set up all along these boundaries, essentially forming a square around the neighborhood: Alameda Street, Alhambra Avenue, the Los Angeles River, and Macy Street (known today as Caesar E. Chavez Avenue).
At the specified time the quarantine was to begin, those from the community who were inside the boundaries were not allowed outside until further notice; those outside at jobs and other responsibilities were not let back inside. This sudden act and lack of communication helped increase the already growing fear within the community.
Catholic Charities brought food and water for seven days to each family living in the neighborhood to help them through the crisis. A local Baptist church and a few area schools also opened their doors and provided room for those who were trapped outside the quarantine when it began.
Some business and civic leaders took advantage of this outbreak in ways that were not so charitable. They saw the plague as an opportunity to acquire land, which was becoming more precious as Los Angeles expanded.
When the sick were taken to an isolation ward at Los Angeles County Hospital, many of their homes were burned or torn down, the excuse being that these places might be harboring rats. It is estimated that more than 2,000 structures in the community were either burned or torn down during the outbreak.
Sadly, very few received compensation for their losses because the action was taken in what was described as the “common good” and for “emergency” purposes.
As a result, many of those who were eventually allowed to come back to the neighborhood found nothing but empty lots waiting for them. They were then forced to relocate farther east in the city or down to new developments near the harbor.
During this crisis, few outside the Macy Street District knew what was happening because some officials felt a complete media blackout would be best for the city. They did not want word of the plague to get out and damage Los Angeles’ growing reputation as the “Paradise of the West.”
Even those within the Macy Street District still had no idea why the quarantine was taking place and why so many were falling ill. It was Brualla and a few medical personnel who finally met with representatives of the community and explained what was happening — and why.
However, they never used the word “plague.” Instead, they described the illness as “malignant pneumonia.”
Without regard for his own personal safety and well-being, Brualla provided spiritual comfort to those who were afflicted and even made room at the church for many of those who had not yet been taken to the hospital. He did this as long as he could, but eventually he contracted the plague and died. He is interred at the San Gabriel Mission.
Brualla’s actions were truly heroic. He felt what he was doing was the “right” thing and a part of his journey, and he never once worried for his own safety.
The Los Angeles outbreak, which is still considered the last major outbreak of the plague in the U.S., eventually ran its course, but not before close to 50 people lost their lives.
Once the rest of Los Angeles learned that the illness was the plague, the once vibrant Macy Street District became known as “Plague City,” and very little rebuilding took place. Instead, more and more families moved to different parts of the city.
Today, that area is now home to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, a transportation center, and a wide variety of businesses. Most of the streets that once crisscrossed the neighborhood are now gone, and only a few residential homes remain.
However, today there remains a plague of a different sort in the area: poverty. Each day La Placita provides food and other care for hundreds of homeless individuals. It has been a refuge in years past for Central American refugees.
The parish also continues its sacramental mission, celebrating 10 Masses each weekend, and baptizing approximately 1,000 children per month. Our Lady Queen of Angels continues to serve as a champion for the rights and dignity of all.
Dr. Jeffrey S. Copeland is a professor at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of “Plague in Paradise: The Black Death in Los Angeles, 1924” (Paragon House, $20). Eileen O’Brien is director of Facilities and Operations at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center, Los Angeles.
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