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Hospital Work

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Henry Funk served in three medical facilities during the war.


“I had two years of service in the Manitoba School for Mental Defectives (Portage la Prairie), about 8 months at the St. Boniface Hospital and 4 months (or so) at Bethania (a Mennonite home north of Winnipeg). There was a significant group that did hospital work – both mental hospital and general hospital.”


When asked to describe his experiences in detail, he writes that he doesn't “know where to begin here or where to stop.” The memories are so strong and fresh that they run together.


“The people in the Brandon Mental Hospital got psychiatric nurses training. We did not at that time. The work soon became routine and boring, though it was significant. The patients were generally not treated as persons. I'm afraid we deteriorated to that too and very soon. Even brutality was not unknown…. Generally, I feel we Mennonite boys treated them with more kindness, and humaneness than did some of the permanent staff….”


Henry's first assignment was in the youth ward.


“The first six months I was on duty in the “nursery” – some 20 patients all infants – ages 4 to 22 – mentally crippled and physically crippled – all in cribs of various sizes – all on diaper, powder, feeding (spoon) routine.”


After that, Henry spent time in the hospital's other areas. The tuberculosis ward, for example, and the dormitory ward for those patients who did work during the day in the gardens, fields, or dairy barn. Unlike the other staff, Henry and his CO colleagues lived at the hospital.


"The dorm life was wholesome. We were 14 fellows in an old, large residence on the hospital compound. No dean, so we had our days – scrap and wrestle like boys – eat 'knacksote' [sunflower seeds] till the living room floor was covered with husks. Generally, now, I feel we behaved alright although we had a lot of fun. As a group experience it was good and a lot of adjusting was done."


Like other COs, they were sometimes criticized their beliefs.


"Socially we did some dating with girls on staff. Most girls did not mind that we were COs even if the Nursing Superintendent advised them not to go out with us 'yellow-backs'…. The staff generally accepted us – we never felt we were hated by the men we worked with even though we were pacifist. Others on the staff – farm, maintenance, nursing – were mean sometimes."


Two young COs in front of a hospital A hospital where COs worked


The war years were a time of passion and patriotic fervour. All public messages supported the war effort. Anyone different felt uncomfortable.


“I still recall the feeling of being a fugitive in society, however. All propaganda, radio, press, billboards pointed a finger at you – why are you not in the army doing your duty? One of the boys came to Portage by train – got on a train in Winnipeg and it happened to be a troop train – all passengers were army men. The three other persons in his double seat were in uniform and for the whole time – Wpg to Portage – they discussed conscientious objectors. One was ready to shoot them all, one was sort of neutral, one tried to defend COs. Imagine Ed Penner, from Plum Coulee, fresh from the farm, age 18, trying to fade into the upholstery, hoping no one would notice him and ask him why he was in civilian clothes. No one did, and he felt like a man who had narrowly escaped from dire disaster, when he finally was able to get off the train.” [MHC, 1015-23]

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