You may read about him here. Or (mostly) in his own words at considerably more length (200-plus pages) here, in his memoirs.
Chisholm was from Old Virginia, where he served St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, down in the flat Tidewater region of the state, a graduate of the Virginia Theological Seminary. By the accounts that we have, he was not an impressive person: bashful, delicate of constitution, weak.
When the yellow fever came to that part of Virginia in the summer of 1855, most of the clergy and physicians fled, along with the rich planters. But Fr. Chisholm stayed, alongside the Roman Catholic priest, Francis Devlin. The two of them did their best to care for the sick people, all of them poor, many of them Irish immigrants and black slaves, finding food for them, even digging their graves at times. About a quarter of the original population of Portsmouth died by the time it was over, above three thousand persons. That number included Fr. Chisholm, worn out from his work and not quite forty years old.
I have spent a while skimming parts of his daily journal during the fever; near the beginning, as it became clear what was happening and everyone who could fled the town, he wrote “Such a day of mortal panic and flight as today has been, I desire never to see again” (p. 100). It proved to be the last day that anyone was allowed in or out of the town. About this point he abandoned the journal; what remains after that is personal letters. In one of them, he writes:
My present condition surprises myself. I trust that I more than ever realize that ‘Eternal God is my refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ I am in His hands, to do with me what seemeth Him good. (p. 133)What is most striking to me is that his work is not that of general benevolence, of the somewhat anonymous care for the sick and needy one finds after natural disasters, as important as that is. It is the care of people he knows well by name, children whom he baptized as infants, members of his parish, with “parish” defined in its proper state-church sense to include everyone living in the community, churchgoers or not, including the Roman Catholics. It is especially the suffering and death of the children than is grievous to him, as it would be to any pastor.
It is also striking that it never seems to have occurred to him that leaving his parish was a possibility. Never mind the other clergy doing exactly that; the idea of walking away from his people when they were in need was unthinkable. There is no hint that he felt at all courageous or special for staying in place.
The condition of our town is awful beyond conception. The eye must see; the ear must hear; the fancy can not furnish the deep, dark shadows of the picture. On Sunday, thirty-two deaths in Portsmouth; on Monday, twenty-one; yesterday, thirteen; today, by eleven o’clock, seventeen. The heartless language of the undertaker from whom I obtained this morning’s report, was, almost in a tone of exultation: “Oh! We’ll get it up to twenty before sunset!” (p. 132)In February of that year, his wife had died, leaving him with two young boys. At the beginning of the pestilence, he had sent them away to stay with his brother, hoping for their safety. It was not to be: September 5 was the darkest of days for Chisholm. In short order that morning he received a letter from his brother with the news that one of the boys was dead. He began writing a letter in response, called away before he could finish to officiate at the burial of a young girl from his parish. While pronouncing the Committal by the open grave of the little girl, he was seized with the sudden chill that was the first sign of the disease. For some people, it proves to be a minor infection, over within a few days. For others, it enters a toxic phase as it did for Chisholm and so many of his parishioners; high fever, bleeding from mouth, eyes and nose, black vomit, severe dehydration, liver failure and jaundice (thus the “yellow” – the Spanish name is Vómito negro, “black vomit.")
In a final letter to his brother, he wrote (p. 145):
I look back upon my past life with sorrow and shame, when I remember how unworthily and unfaithfully it has been spent… my convictions, and emotions, and hopes, in approaching Him, as my refuge against the accusations of conscience, and the fear of death and judgement, find expression in the words of that hymn whose first and final stanzas are these:
‘Just as I am! Without one plea,
Save that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou biddst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God! I come.
Just as I am! Thy love unknown,
Has broken every barrier down:
Now to be thine, and thine alone,
O Lamb of God! I come.’
Collect from the Common of Saints: Of a Pastor
O heavenly Father, Shepherd of thy people, we give thee thanks for thy servant James Chisholm, who was faithful in the care and nurture of thy flock, even unto death; and we pray that, following his example and the teaching of his holy life, we may by thy grace grow into the stature of the fullness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP p. 196)I have long revered Constance and her Companions, whose feast day was this past Saturday, September 9. Like Chisholm, they cared for the victims of a yellow fever epidemic, theirs in Memphis, Tennessee (1878). And like Chisholm, they died from the disease.
I do not know it as a fact, but I would suspect that Constance knew of Chisholm’s example. It may be that it strengthened her.
It may be that their examples may strengthen us.