written by Gregory Pappas
It was the autumn of 1918 and by the time Fr. Nicola Yanney reached Wichita, Kansas, a citywide quarantine was in effect. The Spanish Flu had ravaged much of the United States and the towns of the American Great Plains states were particularly hard hit.
Authorities had closed churches to prevent the spread of the deadly influenza virus that would eventually kill millions and since the faithful could not come to church, Fr. Nicola took the Church to them.
One by one, house by house, town by town, the Syrian Orthodox Christian immigrant traversed the states of the Great Plains– so that the faithful could receive Holy Communion– what Orthodox Christians believed to be the Body and Blood of Christ.
Death was everywhere in the American plains – his territory reached from Missouri to Colorado and from Oklahoma to North Dakota – where medical care was practically non-existent.
The missionary priest who had emigrated from what was then Ottoman-controlled Lebanon decades earlier– continued to serve the sick, hear confessions, pray with the dying, console the families of the victims and, of course, offer Holy Communion to those stricken.
After a difficult few days in Wichita, he traveled back to his home church of St. George in Kearney, Nebraska– stopping along the way in numerous towns when he heard that an Orthodox Christian family needed spiritual support.
Dozens of accounts of his life have him praying, burying, ministering to and offering communion to Arab, Greek, Serbian and Russian Orthodox Christian immigrants who populated the American Plains in great numbers working in stockyards and railroads.
After days of door-to-door ministry, tending to the sickest of the sick and ensuring spiritual comfort, Yanney collapsed and called his sons to his bedside.
Struggling to breathe, on the night of October 28, 1918 he whispered to his son: “Keep your hands and your heart clean.”
He was one of an estimated 50 million victims worldwide.
A book has been published about the life of this remarkable priest called Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney and a full-length feature documentary shares his life story. Numerous children’s activities are available online including this “kids activity corner” that is downloadable.
Orthodox Churches throughout the nation memorialize Fr. Nicola on the anniversary of his passing and there has been a movement for many years amongst Antiochian Orthodox Christians to canonize him.