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Grotto behind Sts. Peter and Paul marks 1918 flu pandemic

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

In 1980, a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark was designated here in Comal County. This landmark is the grotto right behind the Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church. The story behind this particular designation is important to all of us because it reminds us of that dreaded word “Pandemic” that we became so familiar with just a few years back. Don’t we have flu every year? Yes. Do we have flu pandemics every year? No.

In 1918 a flu pandemic (epidemic on a large scale) broke out worldwide killing an estimated 50 to 100 million people in the world with an estimated 500 million survivors. During this pandemic, forty- five parishioners of the Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church died of influenza, as recorded in their old records. There is no record of the number of people who had the flu and survived.

By early 1920, the pandemic was over. Under the leadership of Father J.M.J. Wack, it was decided to build a grotto to commemorate the end of the pandemic. The parishioners wanted it to be like the famous grotto at Lourdes in France. Father Wack made a trip to the famous Lourdes Grotto and came back with the exact specifications to build the local grotto.

A stone mason, J.J. Scholz, came from Nebraska to oversee the work which was done primarily by the men of the church. The honeycomb rock from which the grotto is constructed came primarily from the ranches of Ferdinand Wenzel, Andres Friesenhahn, and Richard Schumann. Young men scoured the parish and nearby Krankenhaus grounds for flint rocks to build the dome forming the back of the grotto.

All through April, May, and June of 1921 the parishioners worked on the grotto and the names of all who helped were sealed in front of the tabernacle of the grotto. The dedication took place on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul June 29, 1921.

There are many different theories as to where this worldwide virus began. It was called one of the deadliest disasters in human history. Some experts believe that it began in the Far East, mutated in the United States, and spread to France. The theory is that due to the close proximity of the soldiers of WWI, that they were unknowingly the main spreaders of the disease.

The first wave of the epidemic resembled typical flu epidemics affecting the sick and elderly. By August of 1918, a second wave of the flu virus had mutated to a much deadlier form and soldiers in the trenches, crowded trains and hospitals spread this stronger strain. Those infected by the first wave who survived were now immune, but the ones affected by the stronger second wave were the young and healthy. After the second wave peaked, deaths dropped dramatically.

This 1918 flu was called the Spanish Flu but not because it originated in Spain. Spain was a neutral country during WWI and when the flu broke out there, publicity was not censored as in countries involved in the war. When the Spanish King Alfonso XIII became ill, there was much more coverage in Spain. Therefore, it appeared that Spain was the country most affected,

The Comal County Historical Commission is making an inventory of fifty Recorded Texas Historical Markers locally. Celebrating its 50th anniversary of Recorded Texas Historical Markers, members of this commission have volunteered to photograph all exposed sides and all markers or plaques attached to the landmark. These results will be forwarded to the Texas Historical Commission and will become part of the 2012 Atlas. If you want to see the grotto, a drive through is always open behind the church according to Rev. Tony Pesek.

German writer Johann Goethe said, “The best thing which we derive from history is the enthusiasm that it raises in us”. I’m going to be the first in line to get my flu shot next year.

Grotto — Parish Manager Rusty Brandt and Rev. Tony Pesek stand in front of the grotto at Sts. Peter and Paul Church. Insert: Msgr. John Wack in 1920 who spearheaded the building of the grotto.