When Katie Funk Wiebe stepped off the train to attend Mennonite Brethren Bible College in 1945, it was but the next step in a journey of discovery begun with her childhood in Blaine Lake, Sask. Many more steps would follow, through marriage, being widowed, raising four children alone, and her work as professor and well-known writer and speaker.
In her new memoir, You Never Gave Me a Name, Katie Funk Wiebe traces those steps with honesty, humour, and richly harvested wisdom. These excerpts pick up her story just after her marriage to Walter Wiebe, August 21, 1947.
Walter and I arrived by train in Chilliwack, about ten miles from Yarrow, in late August at the height of the raspberry season. Someone, I don’t remember who, picked us up at the station. We spent a few days with Walter’s parents in their small cottage before moving to the duplex across from the Yarrow Mennonite Brethren Church where the Yarrow Bible School was also housed. Walter had a contract to teach there for the coming term….
I have described this year as one of the most difficult in my life. I should have been ecstatically happy in my new home with my new husband; instead I felt abandoned. If Coaldale, where Walter had spent many years, was the concentrated essence of Russlaender conservatism, Yarrow wasn’t far behind. The dominant language was German, which I understood but spoke haltingly. At home we children spoke English to our parents and they spoke English or German to us. Walter’s parents spoke very little English even though they had been in Canada since 1910, so conversation with them was limited to conventional phrases….
I was shocked I had become pregnant almost immediately. Cause and effect escaped my understanding. I felt nauseated to the point of despair. I had not planned for this start to our married life. I knew nothing about being pregnant. Nor about cooking or operating the drafts on a coal and wood stove. Growing up, I had been the child assigned to dusting and cleaning, not cooking. Another deep-seated concern was that the new baby might be born prematurely, as had the baby of college friends. The husband wrote anguished letters to all their friends, explaining with underlining and capital letters that he and his wife had not had sex before marriage, the Greatest Sin in the church at the time. Their infant son was truly premature. I believed him, but the new father anguished that people might judge him. What if our baby was born prematurely?….
A new wrinkle introduced itself when Bible school enrollment was lower than expected, so the board decided one teacher would have to be released. Walter was the likely candidate because he had been teaching only one year. However, graciously the other four teachers agreed to keep him on staff if all five teachers were willing to divide four salaries among themselves. The other men were all established fruit farmers. Walter’s monthly salary was even less than we had planned. We were setting up a household. One day Walter found a dime on the church yard. We said, “Thank you, Lord,” and bought a loaf of bread. Things looked grim….
Church evening gatherings became my refuge, not in the sense of comfort but to fill time. One evening Mennonite Central Committee workers Peter and Elfrieda Dyck spoke to a packed Yarrow MB Church, which held about 1200 people. They told the unforgettable story of the escape of 900 Mennonite refugees through the Communist Russian zone of Berlin to the coast of Holland to board the Volendam for Paraguay. Their clear message of “Gott kann” gave me courage. My problems were small compared to those of the refugees.
I also attended congregational meetings but sometimes came away perplexed, not understanding why this church body made the strange decisions I had just witnessed. One evening the congregation disciplined a father of a large family who refused to pay the levy for the local church-sponsored high school. He said he couldn’t pay. His large family required all his income. The solemn men in black suits up front said he had to pay – borrow the money, skimp even more, but pay…. The legalistic harshness of these Russlaender leaders frightened me, as it would again and again, later on, in other congregations….
When Bible school ended in spring, we called it quits. Walter sold our briefly owned furniture, and we boarded the train for Saskatchewan. He had accepted a position to teach the short-term high school at Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn again, something he enjoyed….
Katie Funk Wiebe, writer, teacher, and speaker.
On June 15, 1948, as the sun streamed its first rays through the window, my labor pains began. I was two weeks late, which meant the baby would be born well within the allotted nine months. With each day over the due date, I felt easier. We had not sinned. I had always known that, but now everyone would know. Walter rushed to a friend to borrow a car to drive me to City Hospital in Saskatoon and returned to Hepburn shortly thereafter for classes.
Childbirth was a woman’s job. In those days she was expected to labor by herself. Fathers were an unnecessary nuisance. I knew nothing about the birth process. No one took time to explain the stages of labor. I longed for someone to be with me through those long lonely hours as my tense body was racked by pain after pain. But that was the way childbirth was done in large city hospitals.
Toward midnight our first daughter, Joanna Katherine, a big beautiful baby, was born. She became a ray of hope in our difficult circumstances….
Walter had accepted an offer to teach at Hudson Bay School, a one-room grade school six miles north of Hepburn…. Here our real bonding as a married couple began. I said good-bye to college days, determined to make a life for myself somehow in this isolated place. I dug into homemaking as best I could. I learned to bake excellent bread with flour we bought by the 100-pound bag. My first task every morning was to wash diapers by hand in the washtub, no small task, for all water had to be carried in and heated on the stove….
Our conflicts in marriage were the same then as they are now in many families: money and sex. Walter had finally accepted the need for some form of birth control. A large family like his own family’s would soon end his pledge to continue his education. Birth control didn’t seem right to him, but the other solution was to sleep on the couch….
The glue was beginning to settle into the small corners of our marriage. At Hudson Bay School we learned to talk to one another about our future together. Though we had two distinct backgrounds, we found togetherness in a shared future. He had a dream and I dared to join him in this dream. As a married woman, there was no other way.
The dream focused on a literature ministry for the Mennonite Brethren Church… We started a daily devotional time, which we maintained until Walter died. It was impossible to pray together when angry with one another….
A high point in 1953 was Walter’s ordination to the ministry by the Hepburn MB Church…. I had bought a new black velvet hat for the occasion and sat on the platform with him. When I came home that evening, I noticed that the preacher’s sweaty fingers had left their imprint on my new hat when he had prayed over us. I had the sign of ordination on my head but no assignment. In those days wives received their identity from their husbands. I was usually introduced as “Mrs. Walter Wiebe.” Now I could say I was “Mrs. Rev. Walter Wiebe.” Walter’s rise up the church hierarchical ladder also took me a small notch higher, something I, in my immaturity, subconsciously treasured at the time. We were moving on up….
Sometime during this period Walter enrolled in a Christian Writers Institute correspondence course for beginning writers in Chicago. He completed the lessons and received comments from an instructor. I read them on my own time and studied the comments. Somewhere, deep inside, a small seed was sprouting. I felt the urge to write. But I shared my longing with no one. I had no idea what a writer did to succeed.