Mennonite Heritage Village

Steinbach’s First Frontline Workers

by Gary Dyck

At the start of the 20th century Agnes Fast felt it was time for a change. She didn’t want to be a farmer. She wanted to be a certified nurse and serve her community with a modern skillset that could only come by going to post-secondary school. For the village of Steinbach, it had never been done before. To board the train for school in Minneapolis she had to walk past the dissenters in her own family and then in the village. Born in 1883, Agnes was a first-generation Canadian Mennonite and a different kind of pioneer than her parents who moved from Steinbach, Russia and became part of the group of founders of Steinbach, Manitoba in 1874. Little did they know an influenza pandemic was coming their way.

When the pandemic hit Manitoba in October 1918, one of the first frontline workers was Ältester (Bishop) Peter R. Dueck. It was his job to provide oversight for the well-being not only of the original community of Steinbach, but to several Mennonite communities around Steinbach. He provided faithful care for families infected with the virus, worked tirelessly to keep other’s spirits positive when so many young people were dying, and performed several funerals with little help and low attendance. By 1919 even though Peter had survived his own bout with the virus his heart was exhausted. In the early morning hours of January 7th, 1919 Peter R. Dueck, Ältester of the first Mennonite community of Steinbach died of a heart attack. The burden of the pandemic was too much for one pastor to bear.

Fortunately, Agnes Fast was also on the scene. With her training and now years of experience she had become the chief nurse in Steinbach. She would have been a tremendous liaison between the government officials who were trying to figure out how to deal with the pandemic and the Low German immigrants. Members of the community that were disgruntled about her formal education were now grateful to have her on the frontlines saving everyone she could. How many more lives would have been lost if Agnes had not been ready for such a time as this?

At the Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) we love to preserve and tell the stories of our pioneers. We have much to learn. Afterall, we are all pioneers at heart, needing to figure out how to make life work for us, our children and our society.

MHV is thankful for this current generation of frontline workers. As a public institution we are doing what we can to provide a safe, rejuvenating place for people of all ages to visit. Thank you, community caregivers of 2020, for being trained up for such a time as this! May you also take the rest you need and know you are not alone.