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This article was published 9/11/2018 (635 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The only nurse killed by enemy action during the Second World War started her career in West Broadway.
Originally from Carman, Man., Agnes Wilkie moved to Winnipeg in 1924 to attend Misericordia’s School of Nursing at the age of 21. Upon graduation, she worked in Misericordia’s operating room before volunteering to serve with the Royal Canadian Navy as a nursing sister in 1942.
Wilkie was stationed at the naval hospital in St. John’s, N.L., and was returning from shore leave on Oct. 13, 1942 when the ship she was on was destroyed by a torpedo from a German U-boat. She survived the initial blast and later died from hypothermia, but not before having a profound impact on the other survivors.
"Her story is one of courage and fortitude and just commitment to other people and I think we should celebrate it," said Dr. Barbara Paterson, chair of the Misericordia Heritage Collection’s policy and planning committee.
The heritage group acts as an archive for the nursing school and health centre at 99 Cornish Ave. and holds a variety of artifacts related to Wilkie — including her acceptance letter from the military and a school transcript describing her as "pleasant, very quiet, kind and mild." Her temperament and professionalism was on full display the night of the attack.
The S.S. Caribou was carrying 191 passengers and a crew of 46 when it was struck by the torpedo at 3 a.m. on Oct. 13. Wilkie was travelling with her military colleague Margaret Brooke and had the forethought to get the lifejackets stored in their cabin when she heard the explosion.
"Margaret later said that saved their lives," Paterson said. "They opened the cabin door and fell right into the sea because the boat was gone."
Wilkie and Brooke managed to swim to an overturned lifeboat with several other survivors.
"The water was absolutely freezing and what Agnes and Margaret did is they calmed the people on the lifeboat," Paterson said. "They sang hymns, they prayed and there are newspaper accounts of people saying that they wouldn’t have survived without them."
After several hours in the open water, Wilkie developed hypothermia and fell unconscious. Brooke tried but was unable to hold on to her friend until rescuers arrived at the scene five hours later.
"Margaret lived to be 100," Paterson said. "She told her niece shortly before her death that she never got over her failure to hold on to Agnes."
Wilkie died at the age of 38 and she was buried with full naval honours at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in St. John’s. A monument in her honour was raised in the Carman cemetery and in 1953, the Misericordia School of Nursing awarded its first Agnes Wilkie Memorial Medal for General Proficiency.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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