Memorable Manitobans: Maria “Schwester Maria” Vogt (1881-1961)
Born in Schoenwiese, Chortitza Colony, Ukraine on 25 August 1881, second eldest of ten children born to Andreas Vogt (1854-1914) and Aganetha (Block) Vogt (1857-1930), she begged her parents to allow her to enter into a non-traditional role for a young Mennonite woman outside of the home. Her parents finally allowed her to attend a Baptist Bible school in Berlin, where she took advanced high school level courses including English. In 1911 she started her nurses training at Wiesbaden, Germany until 1914 when she received her RN certification. Her course work included medicine, infectious diseases, pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology, dermatology and surgery.
For her early practicum in 1914 she was assigned to work in a German Military Hospital. These were all skills a nurse would need in situations where there were no doctors available. Her father passed away shortly after the start of the First World War and with some difficulty made her way back to Russia across the battle lines. There she undertook further training, and worked for a while in the Mennonite Bethania Mental Hospital getting her nursing certification in Russia as well. Shortly afterwards she was conscripted into caring for wounded Russian soldiers. She worked as a nurse in the Lehrerseminar (teachers college) which had been converted into a hospital, along with makeshift hospitals at the battlefronts dealing in particular with wound infections. Following the end of the war on the Eastern Front, the Russian Revolution occurred and once again she was called upon to assist with the care of wounded combatants, this time working at the Railway Hospital in Schoenwiese near her family.
In 1923, the Vogt family decided to immigrate to Canada under the leadership of her widowed mother. On 3 July 1923, the family left Schoenwiese by train to the Kiel Canal where they boarded the former troop transport Bruton for Southampton, England. During the train trip she had assisted her younger sister in the birth of her nephew which caused great excitement in the party traveling to Canada.
After a short stay in Southampton, they once again boarded the Bruton for Canada arriving in Quebec City on 17 August 1923. From which they travel by CPR to Winnipeg, where they were greeted by the Hanover Mennonite Welcoming Committee which transported the family to the Steinbach area. The family was divided up among a number of the local families who welcomed and hosted the new immigrants to Canada. Maria and her mother stayed at the C. P. Reimer family just north of Steinbach. Shortly after arrival, she took a number of nursing courses in English to be certified as an RN in Manitoba and obtain better English skills.
She became an itinerant nurse travelling from community to community in the southeast assisting in births and treating other patients. In many cases among the more conservative Mennonite groups she had to first overcome fears, superstitions, and home remedies.
Recognizing the need for more formal medical care for the region, she worked together with her brother Abram A. Vogt (who had been a teacher in Russia but because of his poor English had taken up shop keeping) to establish the first Steinbach Hospital. Initially, it was a room in her home but quickly expanded into a maternity hospital. This initial maternity hospital consisted of two bedrooms with several beds and a nursery. This was a private hospital operated by the two siblings, without government support, but with some support by local churches. Demand grew for a fuller service hospital and, in 1930, the building was expanded with additional wards and an operating room – with the hospital receiving a general hospital licence from the Manitoba government. Soon even the expansion was too small and the local board of trade, with input from the Vogts, established the Bethesda Hospital Society, opening the doors of the new community hospital in January 1937.
Meanwhile, Maria had turned the private hospital into the Invalidenheim (Invalid Home). Like the original hospital, it was a private operation in the beginning with Maria again the Home Matron. The aim was first of all to provide a home for people from the immediate Mennonite community who for many reasons needed special care beyond what families could provide. The targeted population were the mentally challenged, the physically disabled, and aged invalids which needed specialized care.
Demand grew beyond the Mennonite community and even beyond Manitoba, so the home was expanded several times to house up to 25 residents. As the need further grew, the Vogts made a proposal to the Mennonite churches to further expand and support the operations. Meanwhile, the local Kleine Gemeinde (EMC) Conference was also looking to establishing a residence for seniors in Steinbach for members of their congregations in the Southeast. In February 1946, the decision was made to proceed with the sale of the Home to the EMC group.
The earlier call for other Mennonite churches to establish a new seniors home had resulted in the establishment of the Mennonite Benevolent Society which was incorporated on 19 December 1945 to own and operate a facility known as “Bethania – A Home for the Aged and Infirm”. This resulted in the purchase of the property known as Parkdale. The residents of the Steinbach Seniors Home and many of the staff transferred to the new site north of Winnipeg. Medical services to the home were provided initially by Dr. Nikolai J. Neufeld, with nursing care under the direction of Maria Vogt as Matron and Director with administrative duties, who was assisted by a staff of nurses, aids, orderlies, cooks, and a grounds keeper. Because of the lack of available trained staff, Bethania became a training centre for many in health care as the place for first employment.
A clue to her importance to these many ground-breaking endeavours is found in photographs of the board of directors and at meetings where she was the only woman present. She forwent the tradition trappings of a Mennonite woman of home, marriage and family: as a young woman leaving home to further her education in a foreign country, in a non-tradition field, serving in the war efforts to comfort the wounded and dying, she overcame superstitions and fears, taking on leadership roles which were traditionally male, she broke the barriers of her era. She blazed a trail as a pioneer for other woman to follow in her footsteps. She was lovingly and in honour referred to by all as “Schwester (Sister) Maria.” It is best summed up in the Minutes of the 18 October 1947 Bethania Board of Directors where she was designated as “die Seele des Unternehmens” – The Soul of the Project.
Maria Vogt continued in her role as the Matron until 4 January 1961 when she suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the Concordia Hospital where she passed away at the age of 79. She was buried in the Glen Eden Memorial Gardens.
Obituary [Maria Vogt], Der Bote, 17 January 1961.
Quiring, Walter and Bartel, Helen. Mennonites in Canada: A Pictorial Record, D. W. Friesen, 1961.
Barkman, Ellie. Rest Haven Reflections 1969, Rest Haven Nursing Home, 1969.
Warkentin, Abe. “The Story of Medical Care and Bethesda Hospital”, Reflections of Our Heritage: A History of Steinbach and the RM of Hanover from 1874, Derksen Printers, 1971.
Wiebe, Peter. “Mennonite Home Remedies”, Mennonite Memories 1874-1974, Manitoba Mennonite Centennial Committee, 1974.
Wright, Gerald. “The Healing Touch”, Steinbach: Is There Any Place Like it?, Derksen Printers, 1991.
Kroeker, Margaret (Ed.), A Vogt Family History: Andreas Vogt (1854-1914) and Aganetha “Block” Vogt (1857-1930); Mennonite Genealogy Inc., 1994.
Unger, Isaac. 50 Years of Caring and Sharing 1945-1995: The Story of Bethania, The Mennonite Benevolent Society, 1995.
Pauls, Peter. Bethesda: First 50 Years, Peter Pauls Publisher, 1996.
Schellenberg, Dave K. Great is thy Faithfullness: 50 Years of Rest Haven 1946-1996, Rest Haven Nursing Home, 1996.
Neufeld, Frieda. “Aganetha Block Vogt (1857-1930”, Preservings No, 9. December 1996.
Keating, Wes. A Community Steps Up: The Bethesda Foundation Story, Bethesda Foundation Incorporation, 2016.
“Grandma” (Genealogy Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry) – Maria Vogt #267738.
“Mennonite Benevolent Society – Bethania Fonds”, Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives.
This page was prepared by Edward Krahn and Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 10 April 2022