During the Spanish Flu of 1918, the rate of death was double for Mennonites compared to any other ethnic groups in southern Manitoba.

A graph indicating the number of Inflenza deaths from 1918 to 1919 in four municipalities in southern Manitoba. Image credit to Mennonite Heritage Archives Facebook page.

A former microbiologist and Steinbach resident, Dr. Glen Klassen, conducted research on the pandemic back in 2008 at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. His interest in the subject stemming from the 2007 Faith Community Pandemic Summit, which he helped to organize.

“I decided to study my own community,” shares Klassen, “Mennonites of southern Manitoba in four municipalities, Hanover, Stanley, Rhineland, and Morris.”

What he found, he says, was startling. “The death rates for Mennonites were pretty well double the death rates of non-Mennonites.”

Klassen goes on to explain how some of the different socializing patterns Mennonites engaged in potentially played a role in those disproportionate numbers. “If you were in a French Catholic parish, you would probably go to the same church every Sunday and meet the same people. The Mennonites were different. They had a moveable church service. One week it would be in Kleefeld, and the next week it would be in Blumenort.”

Mennonites were not only meeting for church services says Klassen, but also socializing at pig slaughter parties and faspa. “I haven’t proven this, but it’s my hunch that this kind of accelerated order of extreme socializing had something to do with it.”

2020 Dr Glen Klassen visiting the Mennonite Memorial Landing Site near Niverville.

In comparing the other ethnic groups, Klassen hasn’t found very many differences. “I think they had very similar lifestyles, the French, the Mennonites, the Ukrainians, and even the Anglo-Saxons. They had huge families, small houses, they ate the same food, and did the same work,” says Klassen, “so, the only thing I can imagine is the different socializing pattern.”

Offering his opinion on the current coronavirus measures, Klassen was quite clear that socializing at church would be an incredibly easy way to spread the virus, "which justifies canceling church services.”

Klassen says he does not think Mennonites today are more susceptible to the virus, but as an 80-year-old, he is taking precautions.

“I’m at risk here, so I’m being very careful,” Klassen shares, “although, I don’t just stay in my house, I go for bike rides, minor shopping trips, and to stores that are properly configured for what’s happening.”