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Bethel Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing celebrates centennial

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – When the Bethel Deaconess Hospital (BDH) School of Nursing opened 100 years ago, it planted the seeds of the current nursing program at Bethel College.

As part of the centennial celebration, the Bethel Deaconess Hospital/Bethel College Nursing Alumni Association (BDH/BCNAA) invited Katie Funk Wiebe to speak at the annual meeting Oct. 3 at the college. Wiebe, who now lives in Wichita, is retired from teaching at Tabor College in Hillsboro and is the author of a number of books.

One of these is Our Lamps Were Lit: An Informal History of the Bethel Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing (Mennonite Press, 1978), written to mark the program’s 70th anniversary. At the BDH/BCNAA meeting, Wiebe recalled stories she collected from interviews of nurses and deaconesses. She told about how the nurses used to sing for the patients at Christmas and how there were times they had to patch rubber gloves.

Both the Bethel Deaconess Hospital and School of Nursing opened in 1908 under the director of Sister Frieda Kaufman. The nursing school’s goal was to prepare young women for Christian service. Students took courses in Bible and the history of nursing and deaconess work, in addition to completing 36 months of practical experience in the hospital.

In the stories she heard while researching Our Lamps Were Lit, Wiebe said, five principles stood out. Sister Frieda and the nursing curriculum taught student nurses, first, the value of service. Sister Frieda’s example demonstrated, second, the importance of strong female role models. The immense historical changes during the school’s more than six decades of existence showed, third, the necessity of flexibility. Throughout all the change and challenges, Sister Frieda left a legacy of high standards of excellence, the fourth principle. Finally, Wiebe said, Sister Frieda taught the centrality of a spiritual basis for all of life.

The BDH School of Nursing became nationally accredited in 1953. Around that same time, students started taking supporting courses at Bethel College and Hesston College while still getting their nursing courses at BDH. The school of nursing closed in 1974, after 66 years in operation and graduating 660 nurses.

During the annual meeting, the alumni also honored Arlene Hett, a 1969 graduate of BDH School of Nursing and this year’s Outstanding Nursing Alumnus. Hett talked about learning, as a nursing student, that mediocrity is not acceptable, even in the seemingly simple task of making a bed.

Verda Deckert, Newton, a 1964 graduate of BDH School of Nursing and a Bethel College nursing faculty member from 1990 until she retired last spring, remembers the deaconesses’ dedication to their profession.

“By the time I came along, they were not young women any more,” Deckert says, “but they still worked tirelessly at their jobs. They taught us to be frugal, thorough, care for the whole person and family, always to do the right thing. [They] always had high expectations [for] each of us. We certainly gained a reverence for life at all phases – birth, middle age, elderly.”

“The emphasis on ministry to the body and spirit were integrated well,” adds Sara Regier, North Newton, a 1957 graduate. She remembers her time at BDH as happy and disciplined.

She notes that many of the nursing students went on to work in the mission field or small, rural hospital settings. The BDH School of Nursing “created a lot of self-confidence in the women,” Regier says, adding that the school also prided itself on its academic and professional excellence

Even though the BDH School of Nursing closed six years before the Bethel College nursing program opened, the latter carried on the strong tradition of BDH.

“Nurses trained in the current program are responding to [BDH’s] ‘commitment to a rigorous liberal arts foundation within a Christian context . . . which links theory and practice suitable for serving the needs of a diverse society,’ ” says Brad Born, Bethel College vice president for academic affairs. “Sustaining the best of that tradition, the Bethel nursing program will continue to equip its graduates with the liberal arts foundation and professional preparation that has made them excellent nurses.”

Even as the BDH program celebrates its centennial, “it will continue to inspire and guide Bethel nursing graduates to become servant leaders for the wider world,” Born adds. “A phrase applied to [BDH] graduates in Our Lamps Were Lit applies equally well to current and future students of the Bethel nursing program: ‘The lamps of its graduates will shine.’ ”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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