Pioneer of Health Care: Sister Anna Gertrude Penner

By Kristine Schmucker, Curator

We are so grateful to the health care workers that are working tirelessly during this time of a global pandemic. Harvey County has a long tradition of caring. Early on the women of Harvey County played a leading role in providing health care for the community.  Dr. Lucena Axtell worked with her husband, Dr. John T. Axtell, to establish Axtell Hospital as the first health care facility in Newton. Harvey County women were also leaders in the field of public health. In the 1920s, Miss Johanna Conway, along with a group of women from St Mary’s Catholic Church worked on education for the “Mexican Camps.” In 1916,   Harvey County was one of the first Kansas counties to establish a Public Health Nurse. Initially, the Public Health nurses was under the direction of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Bethel Deaconess Hospital, Newton.

Sister Anna Gertrude Penner, a Deaconess with the Bethel Deaconess Hospital, served as the first Public Health Nurse from 1916-1921.  In this role, Sister Gertrude joined a national movement started by Lillian Wald in New York that sought to educate and care for the health of the community and especially the poor.

The Deaconess movement that started among south central Kansas Mennonites came at a unique time when needs in health care and desires to devote one’s life to caring for others came together for several women in the Mennonite Church. June 8, 1908 Sister Frieda Kauffman, Sister Ida Epp, and Sister Catherine Voth, after completing their training, were the first ordained Deaconesses of the Mennonite Church. This was during a time when women were not allowed to attend “Brotherhood meetings” or vote on church matters.

Deaconesses were not paid wages, rather all of their needs were met by the “motherhouse” and any wages received from other sources went to a common account at the sponsoring organization.  In Newton, the Bethel Deaconess Hospital provided the Deaconess with a home, full maintenance, monthly pocket allowance, an annual vacation allowance, and opportunities to attend institutes, conventions, and take post graduate work with expenses paid.

Born October 4, 1886 near Hillsboro, Ks, Anna Gertrude Penner was the second of fourteen children in the family of Rev. Heinrich D. & Katherine Dalke Penner.  Education was important to her parents.  In addition to serving as a minister for the Hillsboro Mennonite Church, Rev. Penner taught at several schools in the area including the elementary school in Lehigh, Ks, Bethel College, North Newton from 1893-1897 and the Hillsboro Preparatory School from 1897-1913.  No doubt he instilled this value in his children and encouraged their education.  As the second oldest, Anna would have also been called on to assist her mother with the younger siblings as she grew to adulthood.  Perhaps these influences led her to consider dedicating her life to educating and caring for the sick and infirm.

Anna Gertrude Penner graduated from the Bethel Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing in Newton, Ks in 1915.  Following her graduation, she took four months of additional classes in Chicago specializing in public health, paid for by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Bethel Deaconess Hospital. Upon her return to Newton in 1916, she became Harvey County’s first ‘visiting nurse’.

On October 1, 1916, at the age of thirty, she was ordained as a Deaconess by her father Rev. Heinrich D. Penner. For the next fifty years Sister Gertrude served the Newton community in a variety of ways.  She served as the public health and school nurse until 1921, when she serviced as a R.N. at Bethel Deaconess Hospital, Newton. She also taught future nurses and finally served as a receptionist at the Bethel Student Nurses Home.  Rev. Penner also remained a supporter of the Deaconesses at Bethel Deaconess Hospital, serving as a teacher and spiritual advisor. He also published several educational pamphlets for use in classes.

As a Public Health Nurse, Sister Gertrude cared for the sick, but more importantly, she worked to educate households on preventative measures. She provided information and care to new mothers in their own homes.   In 1917, Sister Gertrude expanded her duties to include school nurse for the Newton schools.  To assist her, Sister Anuta Dirks joined her as public health nurse for the county.

According to Sister Gertrude the role of the public health nurse was more than just caring for the sick patient, they must “look for causes outside the patient and family, and see what role the community plays in the matter of health and disease. It is possible  . . . that neither the patient nor his family is to blame for having typhoid fever or tuberculosis or even for being poor and ignorant.”

(Sister Anna Gertrude Penner 1917)

At first, the Public Health Nurse was supported solely by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Bethel Deaconess Hospital.  They provided the funds for Sister Gertrude to attend the additional classes in Chicago.  Although after her ordination, Sister Gertrude did not receive any salary for her work, there were other expenses.* The Auxiliary requested that the Newton City Commission help pay for the support of the Public Nurse.  In 1918, the city contributed $150 to the program.  By 1920, a monthly allotment of $100 was allowed and the Newton Board of Education funded the school nurse position at $70 a month.

Due to a shortage in nurses in 1921, Sisters Gertrude and Anuta were needed at the Bethel Deaconess Hospital.  From that point the Women’s Auxiliary arranged for non-Deaconess nurses to take over the position of Public Health Nurse in Harvey County.

In 1966, Sister Gertrude was the first Bethel Deaconess to serve for 50 years

Sister Anna Gertrude Penner “quietly departed” on February 22, 1967. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery along with the other Bethel Deaconesses.

A Useful, Busy Life: Miss Challender

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

This post was originally posted on our old blog site on December 13, 2012.

The next Harvey County community that will be featured at HCHM is the oldest city in the county – Sedgwick. The exhibit featuring Sedgwick will open January 11, 2013. The next series of blog posts will feature people and events from Sedgwick’s history.

Some people are able to extend their influence across city boundaries—Miss Olive May Challender may have been one such woman. Her fourteen year teaching career included two Harvey County towns, Burrton and Sedgwick.  Her involvement in her church extended her influence beyond the county to include the state.

Miss Olive May Challender
Photo courtesy Chris Child
Find A Grave

“A useful, busy life. . .”

Olive May Challender was born in Neponset, Illinois, October 25, 1877 to Josiah S. and Alice Challender.  Two years later a brother, Alton, was born.  The family came to Kansas in 1892 and settled in rural Harvey County near Burrton.

Wheat Harvest, Challeder Farm near Burrton, 1899
A.R. Challender, R.T. Challender and Mr. Billings
HCHM Photo Archives

Olive graduated from Burrton High School and taught for three years before attending the State Normal School in Emporia, Ks. After her graduation in 1900, she returned to Burrton to teach in the Primary School.

Burrton’s First Primary Teacher, Olive May Challender
HCHM Photo Archives

The Burrton Graphic  noted that Miss Challender “endeared herself to the children whom she taught by her kinds and loving actions toward them.” (Burrton Graphic, February 10, 1911)

Burrton Primary School, April 23, 1903
Olive May Challender & pupils
HCHM Photo Archives

In 1907, she and her mother moved to Sedgwick and Miss Challender began teaching the children of Sedgwick.

Sedgwick School
HCHM Photo Archives

“A noble, Christian life”

Miss Challender was described as a “talented and loveable” person. While living in Burrton, she joined the  Methodist Episcopal Church. When she moved to Sedgwick, she transferred her membership the M.E. Church there.

Methodist Episcopal Church, 1903
Sedgwick, Ks
HCHM Photo Archives

During this time, she served at the state level as County Sunday School Association Superintendent of Primary Work.  Through this work she became known county wide and her “influence extended beyond the circles of her immediate community.”

“The unexpected death . . . caused universal sorrow”

At the age of 33, Miss Challender suddenly died.  The Newton Weekly Kansan Republican reported that she had left school on Thursday complaining of a sore throat, but no other “alarming symptoms.”  On Sunday morning, her family was felt some concern “because her lower extremities were cold.”  At noon, she tried to get out of bed, but she could not walk.  Her family helped her back to bed, “and death came quickly.”  The paper goes on to report that the physicians were puzzled because there were no indications of acute disease.  They finally concluded that her heart was weakened for some reason and simply gave out without warning.

“The unexpected death of Miss Ollie Challender at Sedgwick last Sunday caused universal sorrow . . . She was greatly loved . . . A useful, busy life.” (Sedgwick Pantagraph, undated clipping, HCHM Archives)

Burrton Graphic Feb. 10, 1911; Newton Weekly Kansan Republican 9 February 1911; Sedgwick Pantagraph,February 9, 1911; HCHM Archives – Olive Challender’s Memorial Service; Combined Kansas Reports (Google Books) p. 127; The Development of the Sunday School, 1780-1905, (Google Books) p. 518-519; Report by Kansas Department of Public Instructions, 1910 17th Biennial Report, (Google Books) p. 293;Yearbook by Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia, 1904 (Google Books) p. 120 Elementary Courses

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Posted by hvcurator at 12:07 PM

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Labels: BurrtonM.E. ChurchOlive May ChallenderSedgwickState Normal SchoolSunday School Associationteacher

“An Untimely Death”

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

On May 18, 1904 the Newton Evening Kansan Republican reported the sad news of the “untimely demise” of a local businessman’s pet alligator.  The seventeen year old alligator was six feet long and “had just begun to waken from his winter lethargy”, when he suddenly became ill, rolling “around in a very turbulent fashion”. He died later that evening.
Seventeen years before, Anson B. Conrad jokingly asked Alex Lupfer, a friend who was leaving for Florida, to send him an alligator.  Soon, a package arrived in the mail with two alligators.  One measured twelve inches and the other thirteen.  The larger reptile died a week later, but with careful nursing and frequent baths of hot water, Conrad was able to keep the smaller one alive. The alligator flourished in Newton. During the winter months Conrad kept the alligator in the basement of his home at 209 W Broadway, Newton. He fashioned a pen in his yard for for the summer months.  The reptile also spent time in the window of Conrad’s Main Street Store.
Conrad’s Drugs & Jewelry, 1901
501 Main, Newton
Western Journal of Commerce, p. 11
HCHM Photo Archives

Hundred of Newtonians have seen the ‘gator in the show windows of the Conrad store, where it was placed every summer until it got so large and powerful it could not be trusted outside of its pen.”

Interior Conrad’s Drugs & Jewelry, 1901
501 Main, Newton
Western Journal of Commerce, p. 11
HCHM Photo Archives
The newspaper article concluded by noting;

“Mr. Conrad is not grieving very deeply over the death of his pet, for it was becoming quite a burden.  During the summer he feeds it a mess of kidneys every day.”

Anson Conrad was a successful jeweler and watch inspector for the Santa Fe Railroad.  He arrived in Newton with his father, Dr. J.D. Conrad and two brothers, Elmer E. and Weir C.* in 1882.  Anson apprenticed with jeweler Charles Mum for three years.  Beginning in 1885, he worked as a jeweler in   his brother’s store, Conrad Bros & Dutcher located at 505 Main, Newton.  By 1905, two of the  Conrad brothers, Anson and Elmer E., had moved to their own establishment, Conrad’s Drug’s & Jewelry, at 515 Main, Newton.


500 Main Block, Newton, 1917
West Side
515 Conrad’s Drug’s & Jewelry
HCHM Photo Archives
On November 20, 1920, Conrad sold the jewelry business to N.R. Daugherty.  Anson B. Conrad, “a highly respected citizen of Newton”  died January 6, 1926 at the age of 58 years.
*Weir C. Conrad  owned Conrad Bros & Dutcher Dry Goods & Millinery and served as Newton mayor.


  • Newton Evening Kansan Republican, “Death of Mr. Alligator”, 18 May 1904, p. 1
  • Newton Evening Kansan Republican, “A.B. Conrad”, 6 January 1926, p. 5
  • “Western Journal of Commerce“, Newton, Kansas 1901
  • “Newton, Kansas, Past and Present, Progress and Prosperity”, 1911
  • Newton Kansan 50th Anniversary Edition”, 22 August 1922
  • Newton City Directories, 1885-1919
  • HCHM Photo Archives