History: A Mennonite college at a state university

Mar 4, 2019 by

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Illinois State University’s academic programs are organized into six colleges: Applied Science and Technology, Arts and Sciences, Business, Education, Fine Arts and the Mennonite College of Nursing.

Mennonite College of Nursing? Why does a large state university have a college named for a small Christian sect? The answer is 100 years long.

A nurse at the Mennonite Hospital in Bloomington, Ill., circa 1960. — Mennonite Board of Missions

A nurse at the Mennonite Hospital in Bloomington, Ill., circa 1960. — Mennonite Board of Missions

The Mennonite College of Nursing was born a century ago, on Jan. 23, 1919, when members of the Central Conference of Mennonites (now part of the Central District Conference of Mennonite Church USA, then an independent denomination) and the Defenseless Mennonite Church (later renamed the Evangelical Mennonite Church and now the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches) founded the Mennonite Sanitarium Association and Mennonite Sanitarium Training School in Bloomington, Ill. Each denomination had a strong presence in central Illinois.

While the hospital welcomed its first patients on May 1, the nurses training program didn’t begin until a year later. The first commencement ceremony was in 1922. The school was renamed the Mennonite School of Nursing in 1939.

As a Mennonite institution, its rules included curfews, required chapel attendance and prohibitions on smoking, drinking, dancing and playing cards. But these were sometimes winked at. In 1926, students were invited to a New Year’s Eve party. They received permission from the school’s director to stay out past midnight. When she was asked about permission to dance, she responded, “Go ahead and dance, but don’t tell me about it.”

Later, jeans, shorts and slacks were banned in the hospital and public areas of the nurses’ residence. Students were discouraged from wearing makeup and jewelry while in uniform.

The school’s purpose was not to evangelize and create converts to Mennonitism but to train nurses to meet human needs. According to one estimate, only a third of the school’s graduates from 1922 to 1979 were Mennonite. During World War II, 13 alumnae served as Army nurses, and two more were in the Navy. The school was approved by the federal Department of Public Health in 1944 to train military nurses.

Nevertheless, the school produced some graduates who had long and distinguished careers serving the Mennonite church. Lena Graber, class of 1931, spent 30 years in India and Nepal with Mennonite Board of Missions. Eudene King Keidel, class of 1948, served with Congo Inland Mission/Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission from 1951 to 1966 and 1971 to 1981.

The school initially had no instructors. Students learned from the hospital’s doctors and nurses by observation and then doing themselves. Practical, hands-on experience was considered the best teacher.

By the mid-1920s, classes were offered. The local county medical society began providing lectures, mostly in the evenings, and students did some coursework at Illinois State in neighboring Normal. Students would eventually spend a semester taking general education and science classes at Illinois State.

To get more comprehensive medical experience, they would spend three months in the pediatrics department at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis and three months studying psychiatric care at the Peoria State Hospital.

The school had its first male graduate in 1963, and it received national accreditation in 1968.

More changes came in the 1980s. In 1982, the school’s board of directors decided to phase out the Mennonite School of Nursing, which only gave diplomas in nursing, and transform it into the Mennonite College of Nursing, which would grant bachelor’s degrees. Two years later, Bloomington-based Mennonite Hospital, with which the college was affiliated, merged with Brokaw Hospital of Normal to form BroMenn Healthcare.

Brokaw also had Mennonite roots. John A. Sprunger, an entrepreneurial, outreach-minded Mennonite from Berne, Ind., in the 1890s started devoting his considerable wealth to creating Christian institutions, including an orphanage and a publishing house.

Sprunger was also a promoter of deaconess work, a ministry for single women, usually in nursing. In 1896, he started Memorial Deaconess Hospital between Bloomington and Normal. But Sprunger and the deaconesses pulled out the next year, and the hospital changed hands several times and eventually was named for a local benefactor.

By the mid-1990s, however, BroMenn, facing tighter budgets, began discussing the nursing college’s future. Bolstered by $1.2 million from the state, Illinois State took it over in 1999. The agreement included retaining the Mennonite name.

Joining Illinois State was a  logical option. Since the nursing school started granting bachelor’s degrees, an institution of higher learning was a better home than a hospital. Furthermore, the college had a long association with the university. In addition to taking Illinois State classes, nursing students built the winning float in the university’s 1945 homecoming parade.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.


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