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CMU Professor Gets Grant to Study 1918 Flu Pandemic
Biologist wants to "produce something that might help the faith community in Canada today as it faces the challenge of preparing for another potential pandemic."


In 1918-20, pandemic flu swept Europe and North America, killing millions. In Canada, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 died; across the prairies, about 9,000 people succumbed to the illness.

… she was the target of bullies when she was in grades eight through ten.

One poignant testimony to the tragedy can be found in the Chortitzer Mennonite Church Heritage Cemetery in Hochfeld, a Mennonite village near Steinbach, Manitoba. On a stone memorial are the words: "In memory of the epidemic in the year 1918-20 lay 20 children."

When Glen Klassen, a biology professor at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) first saw that stone in 2006, questions crossed his mind. Who were those children? Who made the memorial stone? And what was the effect of the terrible pandemic on Mennonite churches in southern Manitoba?

"These are questions that are not only important for historians to answer, but may be important for identifying the problems that may emerge in our experience of a similar disease today," says Klassen.

Klassen, a member of the Fort Garry Evangelical Mennonite Church, will be able to get answers to those questions now that he has received a grant of $4,685 from the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation, which supports and promotes history research projects related Mennonites who came to Manitoba from Russia in the 1870s. He will use the funds to identify and collect historical materials relevant to the pandemic of 1918-20 in southern Manitoba, and to produce articles that tell the story of how the southern Manitoba Mennonite churches faced the killer epidemic.

With the assistance of CMU student Kimberley Penner, Klassen will gather materials from diaries, obituaries, newspaper accounts, interviews with survivors or their descendants, cemetery records, family histories, school attendance records, and other available sources.

One story he has already heard involves Bishop Peter Dueck of what is now the Evangelical Mennonite Church in Manitoba. "I've been told that he got so run down from visiting the sick and doing funerals during the pandemic that he died of exhaustion in 1919," Klassen says.

For Klassen, the research isn't just about recording what happened—he also wants to produce something that might help the faith community in Canada today as it faces the challenge of preparing for another potential pandemic.

"Canadian churches and other faith groups aren't ready for a pandemic," he says, adding that they need to be since many health care experts, such as the World Health Organization, say that a flu pandemic is inevitable.

Klassen compares the potential of a pandemic to a Red River valley flood. "People in Manitoba know there have been floods in the past and there definitely will be floods in the future. We just don't know when and how severe. So we prepare for the worst case."

In the case of a pandemic, however, there's a sense of grim inevitability. "It's like there's six feet of snow in North Dakota, waiting to come down on us," he states.

Mennonites from southern Manitoba who have stories to tell about how the pandemic flu affected their families, communities or churches in 1918-20 can contact Klassen at gklassen@cmu.ca.

John Longhurst is the director of communications and marketing for the Canadian Mennonite University. Phone: 487.3300. jlonghurst@cmu.ca.

Originally published on the website of the Canadian Mennonite University, Summer 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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