On ‘Titanic’ centennial, missionary’s life remembered

By Sheldon C. Good, Mennonite World Review

Annie Funk
Funk prepares to ride her bicycle to the girls’ school she started in India in 1908. — Photo provided

HARLEYSVILLE, Pa. — When Annie Clemmer Funk, a Mennonite missionary to India, learned her mother was very ill in Pennsylvania, she quickly packed her bags and caught a train to Bombay. From there she traveled to England, where she learned a coal strike had delayed her ship’s voyage to the U.S.

So she paid a few extra gold pieces for a spot on the Titanic, which set sail two days later.

Funk was one of 1,517 people who died in the “unsinkable” ocean liner’s disaster on April 15, 1912. Just three days earlier she had celebrated her 38th birthday aboard the Titanic.

To mark the centennial of Funk’s death in one of history’s most famous tragedies at sea, filmmaker Jay Ruth is producing a 35-minute video that tells the story of Funk’s faith and witness and describes the nature of Mennonite mission at the time.

A DVD will be available, and two premiere showings are planned. The first will be at 7:30 p.m. April 29 at Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton. The second will be at 7:30 p.m. May 6 at Hereford Mennonite Church in Bally, Funk’s home congregation.

The film, sponsored by Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania, is a production of Jay Ruth’s Branch Valley Productions in Lederach.

A native of Butter Valley in southeastern Pennsylvania, Funk was the first Mennonite woman from Pennsylvania to serve as a missionary in India. Fragments of her story have been known for years, but the film is the first larger project of its kind.

“Here’s a young woman who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and somehow she was drawn from there to the other side of the world, and then her life ended in this worldwide drama,” said historian John L. Ruth, a consultant for the film. “As a memorably dedicated Christian, she has not been forgotten in India and North America as a hero of our faith family.”

Using momentum from the blockbuster 1997 film Titanic, Charlotte Strouse of Zion Mennonite helped Funk’s story became even more widely known. Strouse recalled Funk’s life more than 100 times in a one-person re-enactment.

Before going to India, Funk took a teachers’ course at West Chester State Normal School, which later became West Chester University. She trained for Christian service at D.L. Moody’s Northfield (Mass.) Seminary for Ladies, then served in Chattanooga, Tenn., and with the Young Women’s Christian Association in Paterson, N.J.

After Mennonite missionaries in India put out an urgent call for an unmarried woman, Funk expressed interest, Jay Ruth said.

According to a story in the Dec. 26, 1985, issue of Mennonite Weekly Review, Funk had written: “Several years ago I promised the Lord that if the way would open to go to the foreign field, I would do my duty… . Now the door is open wide enough for me to do my duty to the extent of being willing to go.”

Funk went to Janjgir, India, in 1906, at the age of 32. She served under the General Conference Mennonite Church’s young board of missions.

“At the time, India had famine, leprosy, cholera and extreme heat,” Jay Ruth said. “Annie would not have thought of herself as an important person. She would have thought of herself as being faithful.”

In 1908 Funk started a one-room school for girls, later named Funk Memorial Girls School.

Giving up her seat

Not much is known about Funk’s time on the Titanic. Conflicting stories tell of her experience while the ship was sinking.

According to one account, Funk was already seated in a full lifeboat when she saw a woman and her child (or children) who needed space. So Funk gave up her seat, saying she would probably find a seat in another boat.

Although a newspaper in England was said to have documented Funk’s situation, the story is now mostly oral, Jay Ruth said.

Funk’s friends back home were surprised to see her name listed in newspapers along with the other casualties. They were sure the Annie Funk they knew was to come on the SS Haverford. A letter Funk sent back to India as the Titanic left England explained what she had done.

After her death, several memorial services were held in Pennsylvania and India. Her mother’s health had improved, and she was able to attend one of the services. A plaque was later installed in the chapel of the Northfield school, where she had trained.

In 1913 a monument was dedicated at the Hereford Mennonite Church cemetery. The monument, erected by Eastern District Conference, says: “Her life was one of service in the spirit of the master — ‘not to be ministered unto but to minister.’ ”

Reprinted by permission from Mennonite World Review.