She was the first Mennonite woman to graduate from a university in Canada and the first Mennonite woman to teach at a university in Canada! Some say she was the first Mennonite baby born in Canada. Who was she?
A few weeks ago we attended a cultural day in Neubergthal, Manitoba and listened to an interesting lecture by Dr. Royden Loewen, Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg. Although he covered a wide range of interesting topics during his lecture I was most intrigued by a brief description of a woman named Helena Penner Hiebert whose memoirs Dr. Loewen referenced. I wanted to know more!
Helena Penner Hiebert- 1902- Photo from Preservings Magazine
An entry in the Global Anabaptist Encyclopedia Online and two articles in Preservings magazine one by John Dyck in the June 1997 issue and another by Royden Loewen in a 2012 issue provided a wealth of information about Helena.
Helena’s parents Edmann Penner and Mary Eitzen in a photo from Preservings
Helena’s parents Erdman Penner and Maria Eitze immigrated to Canada from the Bergthal colony in Russia in August of 1874 and just a few months later in October Helena was born. Her father, a wealthy man, came to Manitoba with more than $30,000, and quickly established a hardware business in Winnipeg. In 1878 the family decided to relocate to Tannenau a small village not far from the present day community of Mitchell and Helena’s father opened up a hardware store there.
Helena attended elementary school in three Manitoba villages and later went to study in Mountain Lake Minnesota where her grandmother lived. In 1899 Helena graduated as a silver medallist from Wesley College which would become the University of Winnipeg. She was also a member of the faculty there. She organized the Modern Languages Club which later became the University Women’s Club. In her retirement years she wrote her “Granny Stories” in which she describes life in early Manitoba settlements.
Those stories which John Dyck highlights in his Preservings article provide an intimate look at Helena’s childhood. Helena describes a diptheria epidemic during which she lost three siblings. She talks about the neighbor girl who was her best friend and a local farmer who froze in a blizzard. There’s a story about the day her father stopped a turkey from attacking her by cutting off its’ head and the day she burned herself on a hot stove. She and her siblings learned why their mother had warned them to stay away from the bog near their property when one of the family’s cows nearly drowned in it. Helena describes the many English and German magazines and newspapers her family subscribed to. They may have helped to foster her interest in higher education.
There is charming story about a blind fiddler who gets everyone dancing when he comes to Helena’s village. After describing her older sister’s wedding and her family’s home and furniture in great detail Helena tells her readers how her mother faithfully put a candle in her window at night to guide wanderers. Often people caught in a blizzard or having no where else to go would find shelter for the night in Helena’s parents’ home. Her mother never let them leave in the morning without first serving them a good breakfast.
Helena’s family home in Gretna. Photo from the Mennonite Heritage Archives
In 1882 Helena’s family moved to Gretna where they built a rather ornate Victorian home and her father began to establish a retail empire that would have him open hardware stores in ten different Manitoba communities. Helena’s parents arranged for a Mr. H.H. Ewert to tutor her in Gretna and she was taken to Winnipeg for music lessons. Her father was a strong supporter of the Mennnonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna which opened its doors in 1889. Helena’s growing up years were influenced by a variety of important and influential visitors to her parents’ home and her father’s frequent trips to places like Montreal, Chicago, Russia and New Orleans.
Helena married Dr. Gerhard Hiebert in Mountain Lake Minnesota in 1902 and her husband became a surgeon at the Winnipeg General Hospital and a teacher at Manitoba’s Medical College. Helena and Gerhard had three daughters. Gerhard died in 1934. After living many years in Winnipeg and serving her community as a school trustee Helena moved to Quebec to live with her daughter Catherine Brown and she died there in 1970 at age 95.
A photo of Helena from the book Gretna, Window on the Northwest
Helena sounds like a fascinating woman. I’d like to get to know her better. Her “Granny Stories” are at the Mennonite Heritage Center. Finding them there and reading them might be my next step towards learning even more about Helena.
Octogenarian Story Teller Extraordinaire
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