Building a Healthy Community: Early Pioneers

by Kristine Schumcker, HCHM Curator

This is the last in our month long focus on #thisplacematters celebrating Historic Preservation. This post highlights a different kind of building – not a physical building, but a building of a better community. Each of these women were early pioneers in health care in Harvey County.
These women  dedicated their lives to the health of the Newton community.  Their work provided the foundation for several  medical and health services we take for granted today.  From a public nurse assisting with immunizations and bringing health information to those in need to it to building hospitals and overseeing the operations.

Deaconesses. Doctors and Hospitals

Two of the women were closely involved in the building and overseeing of Newton’s two hospitals; Sister Frieda Kauffman and Dr. Lucene Axtell.

Dr. Lucena Axtell

Dr. Lucena Axtell

Lucena was one of two women to graduate from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in in Kansas City in 1897. Dr. Anna Perkins, also from Newton was the other. Following her graduation, she resumed management of the hospital and also set up a private practice.

Together with her husband, Dr. John Axtell, opened Axtell Christian Hospital in 1887. The first hospital in Newton, Ks.

Her daughter Marian Axtell Hanna later recalled:

“Years after she stopped practicing . . . people would come up to her and say, “Oh, Dr. Lucena, surely you remember me. I was so sick and doctor thought that I would surely not live. But you came and stood beside me and held me by the hand and it made me feel so much better.” That was the phrase that always was reiterated, “You held me by the hand and I felt so much better.” daughter Marian Axtell Hanna

Sister Frieda Kauffman

On May 27, 1942, Sister Frieda Kaufman received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Bethel College for her lifelong work as a deaconess and ‘sister-in-charge’ of the Bethel Deaconess Home and Hospital in Newton, Ks. She was the first Mennonite woman to receive an honorary degree from a Mennonite institution of higher learning.

Born in Germany many of her early teachers were Lutheran Deaconesses and Catholic nuns. They had a profound impact on young Frieda. At the age of 8, Frieda with her family migrated to the U.S. arriving in Halstead Ks on July 2, 1892.  As she grew up in Halstead, her childhood affinity with the deaconess and nuns did not diminish. She later recalled “the desire of her heart to become a sister did not disappear” as she got older. In 1902, she began the first step to her goal when she began at training  the Interdenominational Deaconess Home & Hospital in Cincinnati. She returned to Kansas ready to serve.

On June 11, 1908, the Bethel Deaconess Home & Hospital, located on south Pine in Newton, was dedicated and the first three ordained Mennonite deaconesses in America were ordained, Sisters Frieda Kaufman,  Catherine Voth and Ida Epp. At the age of twenty-five, Sister Frieda was appointed deaconess mother and superintendent of the hospital in addition to her nursing duties. She also taught and oversaw the nurses’ training school at Bethel Deaconess Hospital.

As deaconess mother, Sister Frieda oversaw the day-to-day activities of the hospital. In the early years most of the work at the hospital was performed by the deaconesses.  Several were trained RNs, like Sister Frieda, but all helped with housekeeping and laundry.

On August 7, 1944, at the age of sixty, Sister Frieda Kaufman passed away due to complications from diabetes and a heart condition.  She was buried in the Bethel Sister Family lot at Greenwood Cemetery, Newton Ks.

With almost single minded purpose Sister Frieda Kaufman became a deaconess and spent the rest of her life encouraging other women to join her in the work.  She enjoyed people, which contributed to her success as a nurse. She could have been a nurse without becoming a deaconess.  She chose to become a deaconess —  she saw it as a way of life.

Public Health

This past year we have learned of the importance of public health. Harvey County  was an early leader in this area and was one of the first counties in Kansas to establish a Public Health Nurse.  Three of the women were pioneers in the area of public health, Sister Anna Penner, Miss Johanna Conway and Miss Lillian Fitzgerald.

The roots for the Public Nurse got it’s start when the Bethel Deaconess  Women’s Auxiliary was established on March 22, 1910.  One of their many projects was to sponsor a public nurse in Newton.

Sister Anna Gertrude Penner

Sister Anna was ordained in 1916 and went to work at the Bethel Deaconess Hospital.  Seeing a need in the community, Sister Anna decided to expand her role into the community and become the first the Public Health Nurse from 1916-1921.  In this role, Sister Anna 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.

Her duties were varied and went beyond caring for the sick to educating people on proper hygiene and safety. In 1918, the responsibility to finance the Public Nurse program was shifted to the city of Newton.

In 1966, Sister Anna 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.

Miss Johann Conway

At the same time,  a group of women at St. Mary’s Catholic Church became concerned about the conditions of the “Mexican Camps.” One of the early leaders was Miss Johanna Conway who  served as one of seven directors for the “Public Health Service.”   Goals of the committee included teaching English and needed skills for future employment including “industrial work and sanitation  lines of work.” 

In October, the Evening Kansan Republican reported “under the able leadership of Miss Jo” a “band of willing” women spent two afternoons each week “teaching both old and young Mexicans those things which they ought to know but do not know.

Miss Johann was born in Ohio and came to Newton in 1895 where she lived with her brother and sister. She dedicated her life to providing help and education to the Mexican community in Newton.

Her obituary in the October 5, 1929  Evening Kansan Republican concluded;

“A devout member of the Catholic church, a pioneer  worker in St Mary’s parish. . . . She was a leader and organizer in humanitarian work of the community. . . . Her welfare work with the Mexican settlement . . . [where] she has been working assiduously until her illness, a work that cannot be measured on this earth.”

Miss Lillian Fitzgerald

Miss Lillian Fitzpatrick also focused her work in Newton on the Mexican community.  In the early 1920s, she worked as a “City Health Nurse” in Newton, Ks.  One important responsibility of the City Nurse was “to see that adequate medical and hospital treatment are secured for all indigent persons.”  She was expected to not only be a knowledgeable nurse or health care provider, but also be familiar with local agencies that provide assistance to those in need. The position of city nurse was “supported by public funds or by other means of a public nature.” (Evening Kansan Republican,  22 September 1922.)

One of Miss Lillian’s projects included caring for the Mexican American mothers and children that lived at the ranchito in Newton. She oversaw the building of the Mexican Health Center. Described by the Evening Kansan Republican  as “a substantial and adequate building the Santa Fe railroad . . . erected for the public health work among the Mexicans of this camp.” 

Vaccines & Well Baby Checks

There were many occasions for all of these women to work together as their goals of a healthy community were the same. Much of the work reported in the Kansan Evening Republican centered around vaccinations and well baby checks for all Harvey County children. Educating young mothers was another priority.

As City Nurse, Miss Lillian worked with doctors and nurses from the two hospitals to provide information and care to new mothers. Education on disease prevention was a strong component for all of their work. Administering the small pox vaccine was another high priority. Miss Lillian  assisted Dr. Roff with small pox vaccinations at the “Mexican Camps” in the early 1920s.

In connection with Bethel Deaconess Hospital “Well Baby Clinics” were held at various locations in Newton. The Evening Kansan Republican reported on several clinics held by Miss Lillian in conjunction with Sister Catherine Voth, Bethel Deaconess Hospital, and Miss Lucille Thomas, Red Cross Nurse. In September 1922, a “white baby clinic” was held.  Sister Catherine spoke on malnutrition. A meeting for “colored babies and mothers” was held on a separate afternoon.

Each of these women were pioneers in health care, each one dedicating a significant part of their life to the service and care of others, often for little to no pay. Their work formed the foundation for many institutions and services that we have today from the Newton Medical Center to the Harvey County Health Department.

For more on each of these women follow the links in the post to learn  their individual stories.



Pioneer of Health Care: Sister Anna Gertrude Penner

By Kristine Schmucker, Curator

Previously posted on our old blog site on March 28, 2013

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.

What was a Deaconess in the Mennonite Church?

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.

Sister Anna

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 Anna 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.

Public Nurse

As a Public Health Nurse, Sister Anna 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 Anna 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 Anna 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 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 Anna to attend the additional classes in Chicago.  Although after her ordination, Sister Anna 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 Anna 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 Anna 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.


  • “Sister Anna Gertrude Penner”, Mennonite Weekly Review Obituary March 30, 1967, p. 12.
  • Deaconesses of the Bethel Deaconess Home & Hospital, “The Deaconess and Her Ministry”, Mennonite Life January 1948, p. 30-37.
  • Krahn, Cornelius and Richard D. Thiessen. “Penner, Heinrich D. (1862-1933).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 22 March 2013.
  • Krahn, Cornelius and Richard D. Thiessen. “Penner, Heinrich D. (1862-1933).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 22 March 2013.
  • Myers, Lana.  Newton Medical Center: Merging the Past with the Future. Newton Healthcare Corporation, Newton, Ks, 2006.
  • Writers’ Program Kansas, Lamps on the Prairie: A History of Nursing in Kansas.
  • Wiebe, Katie Funk. Our Lamps Were Lit:  An Informal History of the Bethel Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing Mennonite Press Inc., Newton, KS, 1978.