Between the summers of 1849 and 1850, throughout the Midwest, people were dying from one of the worst cholera epidemics the region would ever see. Often borne by water or direct contact, cholera caused massive dehydration and quick death, and it wasn’t until 1854, when Dr. John Snow identified the link between cholera and water that such epidemics became preventable.
What does all this have to do with the Catholic faith?
Well, if you lived in the Midwest between those two summers, you faced the scenario that moviemakers still frighten us with today (witness the film release of “Contagion” not too long ago)—entire families erased by a fast-moving, death-dealing microscopic foe.
Enter my German-Catholic Illinois ancestors, who faced that pivotal and terrifying time between summers. On one hand, there is the story of Gerhard Heinrich Huelsmann and on the other is the story of Henry J. Altepeter. Both came to the US from Germany—my great-great-great grandfather Henry J. Altepeter arrived first, in 1838, with his wife and several young children, and they began farm life on land between Breese and Germantown, Illinois. By 1839, Henry’s wife had died, yet he carved out family life as best he could, eventually remarrying and raising his family during these very rugged times.
One of Henry’s rural neighbors was blacksmith and farmer, Theodore Huelsmann, who also came to Breese some time in 1838, from Germany. Theodore’s brother, Frederick (my great-great-grandfather), waited until 1848 to join his brother in the US, and a third brother living in Germany, Bernard, soon decided to have his family—and the brothers’ aging parents (in their sixties), Gerhard Heinrich and Adelheid—join their Illinois relatives.
Bernard’s timing couldn’t have been worse—the Huelsmann clan arrived in the port of New Orleans, via the ship “Ernestine,” on June 4, 1850, at the height of the cholera outbreak here in the Midwest. They made their way, probably up the Mississippi River, to St. Louis, where an ailing Gerhard was placed in quarantine before he could even set foot on Illinois soil.
Meanwhile near Breese Illinois, Henry Altepeter and family were surrounded on all sides by death and disease. Henry vowed to God that if his family is spared he will erect a perpetual memorial to God in thanksgiving. And, as the cholera threat subsided, Henry’s family was spared.
Back across the Mississippi, however, Gerhard Huelsmann was ravaged by cholera and succumbed on June 22, 1850, having lived only 18 days in the “new world.” His body was brought to Germantown and he was buried in St. Boniface cemetery, beneath the soil he never set foot upon.
The Cholera Cross
Before the end of 1850, Henry Altepeter fulfilled his promise to God, erecting a wooden cross bearing the German inscription: “Im Kreutz ist Heil” (In the Cross is Salvation). Now, 164 years later, a mile south of Breese on the Germantown Road, the “Cholera Cross” remains, now in concrete, as a monument to one man’s faith.
And yet, while I reflect on the beauty and power of the Altepeter “Cholera Cross,” I can’t help but consider the power of the other “cholera cross”—the one that graced the grave of Gerhard Heinrich Huelsmann in 1850. Long since vanished, Gerhard’s cross, too, was a monument to his–and our–Catholic faith. In different ways, both my ancestors indeed found the hope of salvation in the Cross of Christ.
© 2013 Deacon Jim Russell. All rights reserved.