Fortunately for many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic is the only personal experience we’ve had with a worldwide pandemic. However, it is not the only pandemic the P.E.O. Sisterhood has dealt with in our 153-year-history. More than 100 years ago, the world experienced the 1918 influenza pandemic. The first civilian cases of the Great Influenza epidemic in Canada were reported in the autumn of 1918, according to Parks Canada. In the U.S., it was first identified in military personnel in the spring of 1918. It is estimated about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
To tell stories of P.E.O. history, we are fortunate to have proceedings from past conventions and archived copies of The P.E.O. Record as valued resources. They are both great sources of information that give an inside look at what was happening within our Sisterhood at any given time throughout history.
The Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Session of the Supreme Chapter P.E.O. Sisterhood, held October 16-19, 1917, in Omaha, Nebraska, tell us that, as of March 1, 1917, there were 14 Grand Chapters, 663 local chapters and 18,344 active members. Through 1917-1919, our Sisterhood grew with the organization of Wisconsin Grand (State) Chapter, 74 local chapters and the initiation of 3,309 new members. Michigan State Chapter was then organized in 1919.
It is surprising to find limited content about the Influenza epidemic within the proceedings of the 1919 Grand Chapter Convention. As our nations were also in the midst of World War I at the time, the 1919 proceedings did include a Report of War Work Done.
In the 1919 Convention of Grand Chapter Convention Proceedings, Margaret Durward, President, Supreme Chapter, is quoted as saying, “Much of the correspondence has been directed toward two great efforts, each a seeming contradiction to the other; During the winter and spring of 1918 an effort to show many states and many local chapters that we must continue our meetings and state gatherings even tho we were in the midst of war, and thus be prepared to serve our country to the utmost since we were organized and trained for that purpose; the next few months after that when the ban had been placed for months on all meetings and a great, distress had arisen in many quarters because meetings could not be held and no progress made, I found myself writing much that sounded contradictory to my earlier statements; We are large enough and strong enough to overcome temporary lapse. We shall hear in a later report how splendidly we have given an account of ourselves as ‘Patriots Every One,’ and we shall hear how wonderful we rallied after the epidemic was over and made good all the time lost.”
The P.E.O. Record at the time had reports from local chapters. This is where we get an inside look at what P.E.O. chapter life was like and what members were experiencing. Our Sisterhood was stronger as those important letters of P.E.O. helped us come together through the two major international events of that time: World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic. P.E.O.s always raise the bar to the stars and we’ll come out of the COVID-19 pandemic upholding our letters, P.E.O.