When she was born on August 26, 1884, she was given a long name, Martha Minna Emelia Pretzlaff, but for most of her 93 years, she was known simply as “Sister Martha.” When she was sixteen, she wanted to be a deaconess but her parents made her wait until she was twenty. She entered the Lutheran Deaconess Motherhouse in Milwaukee in 1904, becoming a registered nurse in 1907. She worked as head nurse and later assistant director of nursing at Milwaukee Hospital from 1907 to 1918. She then joined Passavant Hospital in Pittsburgh as director of nursing during the flu epidemic of 1918. Unable to get nurses for the understaffed hospital, she recruited and trained volunteers who did skilled and unskilled work until the crisis was over. The hospital was in a bad neighborhood. One of her favorite stories was about a night when a man followed her up the street. Finally she turned around and asked him, “Why are you following me up this dark street?” He answered, “I want protection, Sister Martha.”
In 1957, the governor named her as a “Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania.” Part of the citation read:
“Sister Martha was born in Sibley, Ill. She had a grammar and elementary school education, and entered the Lutheran Deaconess Motherhouse in Milwaukee in 1904, in her 20th year. Religious training came first and then nurses training. She became a nursing Supervisor and Teacher in the Milwaukee Hospital, and was consecrated a Deaconess, October 3, 1909.
In 1918, she came to Pittsburgh to become Director of Nursing at Passavant, and in 1921 she took over as Administrator. Almost single-handed, she has, with her strong sacrificial sense of duty, kept the hospital in operation—a city hospital in a sub-standard area, where many people advocated its discontinuance. “Sister Martha,” as she is affectionately known, is humble of spirit, but magnanimously warm and sympathetic of heart; she has given a full life to the alleviation of the suffering of the City’s back streets. It would be difficult to describe the extent to which she has gone to heal the bodies, and to comfort the souls of these ordinarily termed “forgotten” in our times. She is the embodiment of the spirit of Him Who “went about doing good,” serving at tremendous sacrifice and denial of self, doing good without thought of compensation or reward.”
Sister Martha had other honors. In 1953, the Alumni Association of Nurses presented her with an organ purchased by an anonymous donor for use in the chapel services she led each morning. In1962, Thiel College conferred the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters on this woman who never went to college.
Sister Martha was not only Executive Administrator of the hospital; she filled in as anesthetist, treasurer, paymaster, buyer, pharmacist, office superintendent and switchboard operator! She also had many interests besides work: culinary activities, artistic interests, literary pursuits, participation in the Women’s Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, the furtherance of world missions, and devotion to her church. She finally retired from Passavant Hospital in 1964, her face unlined but her hands a little arthritic. At age eighty, she went back to Milwaukee to “help take care of some of our old sisters who are sick.” She died on May 15, 1978.
We have in the archives a little hand-woven cloth which Sister Martha made when she was about 90. It somehow turned up at a Lutheran retirement center in Deland, Florida. How it got there is a mystery. It was sent to Sister Louise Burroughs, then the archivist at Gladwyne, for the archives.