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.

The Adventures of Miss Lillian Fitzpatrick

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

Completely encircled the globe”

The Catholic Advance on January 31, 1920 reported that “Miss Lillian Fitzpatrick of St. Mary’s parish returned to Wichita after five years absence during which she completely encircled the globe.”

Early in the war, Miss Lillian went to Honlulu “to engage in public health work.” From there, she traveled as a Red Cross nurse to Siberia.  While in Siberia she was “injured by a bomb thrown by a Bolshevik” while “maintaining a dressing station behind the front lines of the frigid Siberian front.”  She had a permanent t reminder of the incident in the “small triangular scar on her right arm.” 

After several months in Siberia, Miss Fitzpatrick was sent to Trieste, Italy in charge of 200 injured soldiers.  On the way, tragedy struck, “near the coast of Japan, the ship was wrecked.”  A cable was sent to a sister, Mrs. Jim Conley, reassuring family and friends that “Miss Fitzpatrick was saved.”

The Catholic Advance (Wichita, Ks) 6 September 1919, p. 12.

In a later interview, Miss Lillian described the shipwreck. Caught in a typhoon off the coast of Japan for two days and two nights and “floundered helplessly.”  Rescue came just in time. Three hours later the ship “shattered on the rocks.” Following the shipwreck, Miss Lillian continued to care for the soldiers until they reached Rome, Italy. From Italy, she was sent a on special mission for the Red Cross to Paris and London. She returned to Kansas in 1920. The report in the Catholic Advance concluded the story with the note that “Miss Fitzpatrick is very tired after her long journey.”

“Adequate Medical and Hospital Treatment . . . for All Indigent Persons”

After Miss Lillian Fitzpatrick recovered from her journey, 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.” The public was encouraged to attend an “Open House” to see the facilities and “familiarize themselves with the nature of public health work that is being done by Miss Lillian Fitzpatrick, city health nurse.”  (Evening Kansan Republican,  20 October 1922.)

As City Nurse, she worked with doctors and nurses from the two hospitals to provide information and care.  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.

Miss Lillian also assisted Dr. Roff with small pox vaccinations at the “Mexican Camps” in the early 1920s.

After 1922-23, Miss Lillian Fitzgerald disappears from the Newton papers. By the 1940 Census, Miss Lillian, age 56,  is living with her mother, Margaret, in Wichita, Ks. Lillian Fitzpatrick was born in Arizona in 1881 or 1884.*** She graduated from Pro-Cathedral School in Wichita, Ks, in June 1900. After graduation she lived in Minnesota.  In 1915, she began her adventure as a Red Cross Nurse. She died in Wichita in December 1972.

***According to the 1940 Census her birth year was 1884, however the Social Security Death Index lists the birth as 23 May 1881.


  • The Catholic Advance (Wichita, Ks): 6 September 1919, 31 January 1920.
  • Evening Kansan Republican,  22 September 1922, 20 October 1922.
  • US Census, 1940.
  • Social Security Administration. Death Master File,.

Saint of the City: Miss Johanna Conway

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

“With the passing of ‘Jo’ Conway, as she was familiarly known, one of the true Christians and saints of the city is taken.” (Evening Kansan Republican, 5 October 1929.)

Miss Johanna Conway was one of several women that worked to improve the health of the community following the first World War.

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.  In 1916, Sister Anna Gertrude Penner became the first “visiting nurse.”  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 program was shifted to the city of Newton.

At the same time a group of women at St. Mary’s Catholic Church became concerned about the conditions of the “Mexican Camps.” The Santa Fe Railroad provided the housing for the Mexican laborers and their families.  Conditions were far from ideal in the early buildings.  Several women from St Mary’s parish devoted their lives to caring for those in need including Miss Johanna Conway, Miss Lillian Fitzpatrick and later Miss Lucile Thomas.


Miss Johanna Conway, ca. 1920.

Miss Jo Conway with her little Mexican friends”

Johanna Conway was born in 1857 in Ohio. By 1895 she had moved to Newton, Kansas where she lived with her brother and sister at 219 E 4th. She dedicated her life to providing help to the Mexican community.

From 1920-1923, Miss Jo was involved in providing assistance to the Mexican American community in Newton. In 1920, she was the chairman of a committee with “plans for Americanization work among the Mexican people.” (Evening Kansan Republican, 8 September 1920)

On the back: “Miss Jo with her little Mexican friends.” Josie Victorio Collection, HCHM Photos.

Goals of the committee included teaching English and needed skills for future employment including “industrial work and sanitation  lines of work.”  Rev. William Schaefer gave “instruction” each Wednesday afternoon. He was encouraged “to have the Americanization work taken up by the committee of women of the St. Mary’s parish and pursued actively . . .  the betterment of the Mexicans.”

Miss Edith Stauforth, nurse, Miss Jo Conway, sponsor, Mrs. Socorra Jimenez, Mrs. Irene Gomez Mrs. Candelaria Florez. Josie Victorio Collection, HCHM Photos.

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.” On October 28, the group of students and teachers held a musical showcasing their progress. Tickets were $1 and the proceeds would “aid in making it possible to further the activities” among the Mexican community.

“Humanitarian Work of the Community”

In fall of 1922, a call went out from the Southwestern Division of Red Cross seeking assistance to “relieve the suffering of the children” in South Russia. Conway supervised the efforts of local women to create clothing for these children in need.  In her report at the Red Cross Quarterly meeting Miss Jo noted that over 1500 pounds of new and used clothing had been shipped for Russian Relief.  Of that 1500, 700 pounds were new garments made by local women for babies and small children.

In 1923, Miss Jo served as one of seven directors for a newly formed Public Health Service. After 1923, her name vanishes from the newspapers. Her obituary indicates illness in her last years. Johanna Conway died October 5, 1929 at Bethel Deaconess Hospital, Newton, Kansas.  She was buried in St Mary’s Cemetery.

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 began at a time when the homes of these people were mere huts and she has been working assiduously here until her illness, a work that cannot be measured on this earth.”


  • Evening Kansan Republican: 8 September 1920, 16 October 1920, 21 October 1921, 20 April 1922, 22 September 1922, 12 October 1922, 23 May 1923, 5 October 1929.
  • Newton, Kansas City Directories: 1887, 1902,  1905, 1911, 1913, 1917, 1919, 1931, 1934, 1938.
  • Kansas State Census, 1895.
  • U. S. Census, 1920, 1930.