It’s a story of compassion, commitment and courage she can tell off the top of her head, and one a Misericordia School of Nursing alumnus believes should be front of mind at this time of year.
Dr. Barbara Paterson took some time Wednesday to recount the story of war hero Agnes Wilkie of Carman, Man., the only nursing sister to be killed by enemy action during the Second World War.
“Obviously I think history is very important, and it soon gets lost if we don’t revisit it,” Paterson said Wednesday. “There are people who have worked at Misericordia for a long time who are not aware of what an amazing person she is. There are people in Winnipeg who don’t know. There are people in Carman who don’t know.
“And I think we need to celebrate (her) and say to ourselves, ‘How is our history informing who we are today?’”
Paterson retired in 2013 after a career as a bedside nurse, educator, professor, dean and research chair. She now chairs the policy and planning committee for the Misericordia Heritage Collection, which is housed in a small room at the Misericordia Education & Research Centre, across Wolseley Avenue from the Misericordia Health Centre.
Among those memorialized there is Wilkie, who graduated in 1927 and in January 1942 volunteered to serve in the Royal Canadian Navy as a nursing sister. She was stationed at the naval hospital in St. John’s, Nfld., serving as an assistant matron.
In October 1942, the 38-year-old Wilkie was returning to the hospital from her first shore leave, a visit to her parents in Carman, with another naval officer, her friend Margaret Brooke, a dietitian. They boarded the S.S. Caribou on Oct. 13 to ferry from North Sydney, N.S., to Newfoundland.
At 3 a.m., the ship was torn apart by a torpedo from a German U-boat. The ship’s boilers exploded, launching people into the frigid water. It sank five minutes later.
Wilkie grabbed life vests for her and Brooke, they forced opened their cabin door and went right into the Cabot Strait. They swam to a lifeboat and clung to it with a number of others.
“Margaret and Agnes held onto the ropes on the side of the lifeboat, and they kept people calm. They prayed, they sang songs like Nearer My God to Thee, and people later recounted how, if it weren’t for their intervention, they never would have made it,” Paterson said.
A few hours later, Wilkie would develop hypothermia. Brooke held on to her unconscious friend as long as she could.
“Margaret died at the age of 100, and it’s so sad that shortly before her death she told her niece, ‘I’ve never forgiven myself that I let go of Agnes,’” Paterson said.
One of 100 people to survive from the 237 passengers and crew aboard the Caribou, Brooke, who was from Ardath, Sask., and died in Victoria in 2016, was made a member of the Order of the British Empire, and had an Arctic offshore naval patrol ship named after her.
Wilkie’s body was interred with full naval honours in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in St. John’s. Her name was given to a nurses’ residence in Halifax. Her photograph hangs in all Canadian Naval hospitals. She has a monument in the cemetery in Carman, and Wilkie Lake in northern Manitoba was named in her honour. She has no known living relatives.
Paterson said those who knew Wilkie described her as warm, caring and gentle.
“One of the newspaper accounts from St. John’s in 1942 recalled that one of the survivors said that Agnes never thought about herself. She was always saying, ‘Are you OK? I know you’ve lost your wife but you can do this.”
The Misericordia School of Nursing closed in 1997.
“I’m a Misericordia graduate and I like to think that some of the characteristics that Agnes had were instilled in me, too,” Paterson said.