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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mennonites on the RMS Titanic

fe’senkje, en sheppbruch 

Annie C. Funk (1874 - 1912)
    15 April 2012 marks the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage between South Hampton, United Kingdom, to New York, USA.  Amongst the over 1500 who perished that night was Annie Clemmer Funk (1874-1912), a General Conference Mennonite Missionary heading home on furlough from India.  Funk celebrated her 38th birthday while on board (12 April).
    According to the Titanic Encyclopedia, Funk had been originally scheduled to depart England aboard the RMS Haverford, whose crossing had been delayed due to the Coal Strike.  According to sources, she died a selfless heroine. 

    Funk grew up in Pennsylvania’s Butter Valley, near the Hereford Mennonite Church near Bally and received her Christian service education at the West Chester State Normal School and Dwight L. Moody’s Northfield Training School in Northfield, Mass.  According to Mennonite Church resources, Funk, like many Mennonite missionaries, had been instilled with a heart for service and missions at an early age. 
    Upon graduation, Funk’s first assignment was the General Conference mission serving the African-American community of Chattanooga, Tenn.  According to Wikipedia, Funk then felt the call to serve God in India, becoming the first unmarried woman commissioned by the Mennonites to the mission field.  In 1906, she prepared to depart for the Kroeker – Penner mission at Janjgir, India (in the former Madhya Pradesh). 
    Somewhat presciently, a friend of Funk’s apparently asked her if she was not afraid to make the long ocean voyage necessary to reach India.  Funk replied, “Our heavenly Father is as near to us on sea as on land. My trust is in Him. I have no fear,” (MC Profile). 
    According to GAMEO, the Janjgir Mission was established by Johann F. Kroeker, a Mennonite refugee from Gnadenfeld, Russia, the seat of Pietist and Missionary zeal amongst the Russian Mennonites, and a graduate from Bethel College in North Newton, Kans.  He co-founded the station with Susanna Showalter of Mülhausen, Germany.  Together with Peter A. Penner and his wife Elizabeth Dickmann, both born in Russia and moved to the United States, they comprised the first Mennonite missionary team to India.  Kroekers established the mission station.  There is some discrepancy in the historical record, GAMEO indicates that Kroeker’s built the school in Janjgir while others sources indicate that Funk founded the school there.  The mission school is now named the Annie C. Funk School.  (Possibly, Kroekers may have founded the original school and Funk perhaps founded a separate school for girls.  Another possibility is that Kroeker founded a Bible academy and Funk founded the girls’ school.)
    Rev. Robert Gerhart, pastor of Hereford Mennonite Church, recalls that the church remembered Funk as, “a gentle person, yet with a strong will and a quiet confidence,” (Gerhart).  He confirms that Funk was the first unmarried woman commissioned to go overseas.  She had in fact been scheduled to go to India with another woman, but her companion became ill and could not travel.  Similar to many other single women of the era, the trip was felt to be dangerous.  Gerhart indicates that Funk left against the advice of the Mission Board, (Gerhart).  While at sea, Gerhart indicates that Funk wrote home in a letter, “My caretaker is the same as yours in America, even if I am on the deep sea,” (Gerhart).
Annie C. Funk Memorial School, (c) MC-USA Archives, Goshen, IN.
    Funk arrived at Janjgir just in time to celebrate Christmas 1906 and she was put to work establishing the girls school.  The Titanic Encyclopedia indicates that the Funk school originally housed 17 students in a one-room school. 
    Gerhart recalls that transportation was a significant challenge for Funk during her six years in India, travel being done in India by cart or on foot.  To encourage her, the children of the Eastern District took up a collection to buy her a bike – apparently there is a photo of her with her new bike at the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, Penn, (Gerhart).
    In 1909, the Kroekers left India to return as Christian workers to Russia.  The Kroekers would eventually become trapped within the turbulent events surrounding the first decades of the Soviet Union and are understood to have eventually perished amongst the many victims of Stalin’s deportations to Siberia.
    In the meantime, Peter W. and  Mathilda Ensz Penner, were called to Janjgir and took over leadership of the mission.  By 1909, a meetinghouse had been erected and the school(s) were in full operation.
    Penner had grown up in the Hillsboro, Kans., Mennonite community where he was baptized into the Bruderthal Church by Aeltester Wilhelm J. Ewert.  Penner was well educated, having attended Bethel Academy in Newton, Kans., The Mennonite Educational Institute in Gretna, Man., and (German) Baldwin Wallace College and Seminary in Berea, Ohio.  The Penners were ordained for the work in India in 1908, (GAMEO).
    Mohansingh Rufus Asna, the first Indian Evangelist to be ordained as Aeltester in the General Conference Mennonite Church, was also active at the mission during this time.
     Funk continued in her work until 1912 when she arrived a telegram from home:
“’Come home at once. Mother very ill. Have purchased on two ships,’ Pater Shelly,” (Titanic ibid).
    Gerhart indicates that her mother had come down with consumption or tuberculosis.
    Funk booked passage home, making her way by boat and by train to Southampton, England, where she had expected to board the RMS Haverford.  Due to the coal strike, the ticket agents offered her a second class ticket aboard the RMS Titanic, which was due to sail despite the coal strike.  With the aid of some friends in England, she booked the new passage and boarded.  Interestingly, the construction of the new super liner had begun in 1909, the same year the meeting house had been constructed in Jinjgir. 
RMS Titanic, courtesy of Wikipedia.
    Funk and the Titanic left Southampton 10 April.  Funk celebrated her birthday on 12 April and on 14 April, shortly before midnight, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg.
    Funk received the news in her cabin, awakened by stewards.  She quickly dressed and made her way to the deck.  As she was about to step into a lifeboat, a woman ran up yelling, “My children!  My children!” and pushed Funk aside, claiming her seat (Titanic, ibid).
    According to Gerhart, a letter from a Titanic survivor was received later at the mission station in Jinjgir detailing Funk’s last self-less moments.  The letter extolls that amid the confusion, Funk gave up her seat in the lifeboat to a mother and child.  It was the last seat on the boat. 
    Back home in Pennsylvania, Funk’s family had not known about the change to her schedule and only learned of her death when her name was published as among the 1,517 passengers dead or missing. 
    Funk’s mother lived for almost another year.  Just over a year after her death, her father, James Funk, erected a stone in her memorial in the Hereford church cemetery.  Her family remained active members of the church.
    The school Funk founded in Jinjgir would also last – another 80 years.  It was renamed the Annie C. Funk Memorial School and a memorial was inscribed in her honor:
BORN APRIL 12, 1874. DIED APRIL 15, 1912

    While I have not reviewed the following books, she is mentioned in Judith Geller’s Titanic:  Women and Children First (1998) and Sharon Yoder’s Annie Funk:  Lived to Serve, Dared to Sacrifice (2008).

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