Sr. Olette Berntsen
Olette Barbara Berntsen was born on August 28, 1882, in Lofoten, Norway. She read a newspaper article in a Norwegian newspaper about the Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess Home and Hospital, Brooklyn, New York, which had founded by the Norwegian deaconess, Sister Elizabeth Fedde. In 1908 she arrived in America to study nursing at the Brooklyn hospital. Sister Olette was consecrated on October 8, 1916. She served in Ebenezer Hospital in Madison, Minnesota, but when World War I began returned to Brooklyn to take charge of the X-ray and anesthesia departments. However, Sister Olette said, “The Lord just wanted me for mission work.” She planned to go to Sudan, which was owned by France at the time. She went to France in 1920 where for three years she studied to be a missionary, learning languages and customs of African peoples.
After her training, Sister Olette, with another deaconess and a missionary couple, went to Sudan. There was only about 100 miles of railroad in the country and the little group had to walk nearly 300 miles to get to their station. They built mud huts with grass roofs to live in and for a dispensary. There was no doctor for a hundred miles, but the deaconesses dispensed medicine. Sister Olette became an expert on tropical diseases, traveling from village to village on foot or carried by native bearers. One of her most difficult decisions came when an elderly woman with a broken leg was brought to the dispensary. The women refused to go to the hospital, but it was clear that the leg had to be amputated if she was to live. Sister Olette had witnessed many amputations and thought she might be able to operate, but she could lose her license for doing a doctor’s work. She did the operation, using a wood saw, with the missionary giving anesthetic under her direction. Dressings were held in place with leaves tied with raffia. Later a French doctor came to inspect the operation, and he approved. Sister Olette was not reprimanded.
After 17 years in the Sudan, Sister Olette, who always remained a Brooklyn deaconess, came to the United States for a furlough. World War II had already begun in Europe, although the United States was not yet at war. While returning to Africa in 1940, her ship, the Zam Zam, which was carrying approximately 140 American missionaries representing several church bodies, was sunk by a German raider. Realizing that the ship was not a threat, the raider picked up the people aboard and soon transferred them to a larger ship where they were held for 5 weeks. They were taken to France, where the Americans were freed. Sister Olette, however, was a Norwegian citizen. She was sent to a German prison camp for 6 months, then to Nazi-occupied Norway. She lived with her brother and nursed a sick man until the war was over. She returned to the Sudan until her retirement in 1950.
Sister Olette returned to Brooklyn and spent her days visiting patients at the hospital and acting as hostess when groups met at the deaconess home. She became an American citizen during this period. She died on February 12, 1974, survived by only one other, much-younger Brooklyn deaconess.