They Survived a Pandemic and Built a Cathedral –How Will We Remember COVID?

A great plague struck Vienna in the early 1700s.  Rulers often left the cities during such times, but Charles VI remained, joining the inhabitants to pray for deliverance. They particularly prayed to St. Charles Borromeo, who had been canonized out of admiration for the way he cared for victims of a plague in the 1570s.  When in 1712 the plague finally subsided, the Emperor, filled with gratitude, pledged to build a great cathedral. Construction began in 1716 and was completed in 1737. It was called Karlskirche, or St. Charles Church.  It became an architectural landmark in Vienna; people married in the chapel include Mozart, Mahler and Hedy Lamar.  It continues to be a popular sight.

            When I arrived in Vienna in January 2020, Karlskirche was not on my list of places to see. But it was close to my hotel and became one of the first places I visited.  Initially I was put off by the overly ornate architecture – way too frilly and overdone for my tastes. And the paintings of the saint caring for plague victims seemed to portray events of a distant past. But something kept drawing me back.  On a cold Saturday night – you were given a wool blanket when you entered — I attended a performance of the Mozart Requiem there.  I visited again two days later.  And on my last night in the city, I was on my way to a concert. It was foggy as I passed Karlskirche and its bells were ringing; I realized I had become enamored.

            I returned from Europe in early February.  A short time later, COVID-19 began shutting down Europe and the world. So far, 3.8 million people have died —  614,000 in America alone – and it is still threatening many people in the world.  It is finally subsiding in America, and California is scheduled to lift most restrictions on June 15.

            As life begins to return to normal, I’ve been wondering: Will we do what the Austrians did? Will we take time to be grateful for those who helped us survive the COVID plague?  Will we find a way to remember what lessons we have learned?  We have memorials for many painful experiences, including the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. and the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan.  The art and themes of Karlskirche focus on the spiritual figures and beliefs that were prominent in 18th century Vienna.  What themes might we include for our COVID experience?

            If I was on the design committee, here are some themes I would suggest:

  • Healthcare workers We need to honor the healthcare workers who lived every day on the edges of this invisible and deadly biological disaster, and who, like St. Charles, cared for the sick and dying at mortal risk to themselves.  How about a simulated balcony where, below you, images of nurses, doctors, and hospital workers pass by hour after hour?  Your job is to pick up kitchen pans and create a cacophony of gratitude.
  • Frontline workers We need to honor the countless people who could not cocoon at home with Zoom, but worked on farms and in grocery stores keeping us fed. And for post office, FedEx and UPS workers who became human lifelines.  Peggy Noonan, longtime conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal, was in the middle of the COVID apocalypse in New York.  She wrote: “We know who kept America going during the pandemic—the stackers, counter clerks and others, some of whom were here illegally. When this is over, give them full U.S. citizenship, no questions or penalties.”[i]
  • Scientists We need to honor the scientists who created the vaccine that saved our lives and our world.  Maybe create a life-size model of the labs where Moderna, Pfizer and J&J employees worked around the clock to develop the vaccine?  And testimonies about what it was like to do this critical work?
  • Nursing homes We need to remember the unique human toll COVID took in nursing homes. This suffering was largely invisible.  Millions of elderly and medically vulnerable people had to live as if they were under house arrest, unable to see or hug loved ones. Low-income caregivers kept showing up, often returning to cramped housing to care for their own families. We should not let this be forgotten.
  • Volunteer networks.  Around the country, countless individuals stepped up to organize help for neighbors and people in need.  In the parish I was serving, members created a food distribution network that fed thousands of people over several months.  Similar efforts blossomed everywhere.  We need to remember this display of what it looks like to love your neighbor, no matter who that neighbor is.
  • Our political failures.  When I’ve heard stories of hard times in American history, such as the depression and World War 2, there has often been a common perspective: “It was hard.  But we came together. We shared the burdens.  We united as a nation to face a common threat.”  I don’t think we will hear that about COVID.  Politics often took precedence over the clear and present danger.  It was a mess.  We need to find a way to remind future generations of the cost of personal and political pettiness.

            If COVID had never happened, my memory of visiting Karlskirche would be simply one more positive experience in a trip that had many.  But it’s become more than that. It’s an example of how one culture expressed gratitude for surviving a plague. We need to create memorials that insure the profound lessons learned during COVID will not be forgotten.


(Photo: High Altar Apotheosis of Saint Charles Borromeo, by Alberto Camesina.jpg)


  1. Antoinette Lang says:

    Amen! We must remember!


  2. Don Lubach says:

    I love the idea of memorializing this time. My highest concern is that we use it to be ready for a more deadly virus that could come along at any time. Did you happen to listen to this exchange with Rob Reid and Sam Harris? It’s more than 3 hours long, but it contains real solutions about how the world can build and prepare for and engineered pandemic. The cost of doing this would be greater than any cathedral, but Reid makes a solid case that it would be worth every penny. As always, your post was thoughtful and thought provoking.


    1. Well said, Don. Thank you. I will take a look at that podcast.



  3. John McManus says:

    Such a thoughtful, poignant piece, dear Rev. You lead us to where we need to be in this not-quite-yet-post-Covid time. We need to pause and sink into these remembrances vs. ripping off our face masks and racing off to go to the nearest party. Thank you.


    1. It means a lot to me that it meant something to you, John. Good to be in touch.


  4. Cragg Gilbert says:

    One of your best, Steve! Thank you.


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