Tribute: Katie Funk Wiebe
Katie Funk Wiebe
Katie Funk Wiebe wrote, “It takes courage to grow old, to be brave enough to accept a flawed world with its excessive violence, unrest and loss of a moral compass, yet cling to ideals and hang onto an inner core of beliefs and values. It is important to hang onto faith, to trust and not be afraid.”
In Wichita, Kan., Oct. 23, 2016, she passed on at the age of 92, leaving a legacy of faith, story-telling and an invitation to live by choice, not by default.
In addition to being an author, biographer, editor, columnist and essayist, Katie was a speaker, preacher, pioneer, prophet, provocateur, feminist, teacher, mentor and historian. In 2000, The Mennonite named her among the top 20 Mennonites with “the most powerful influence on life and belief of the…Mennonite Church in the 20th century.”
Katie’s memory is cherished by her daughter Joanna Wiebe and husband Tim Baer; her daughter Susan Wiebe; son James Wiebe and wife Kathy Wiebe; her seven grandchildren Bill Smith (Dana BuhlSmith), Dave Monterroso (Jennie McKibben Monterroso), Zach Baer, Matt Harms (Louise Cottingham Harms), Christiana Harms (Abe Regier), Jamie Wiebe and Jennifer Wiebe; her five great-grandchildren Ella and Miles Monterroso McKibben, Zola BuhlSmith, Andrew and Maisie Harms; her sister Susan Funk Kruger and husband Harold; and other relatives, friends, students and readers. She was preceded in death by her husband Walter William Wiebe (1962) and daughter Christine Wiebe (2000), her sisters Frieda Funk Schroeder (2013) and Anne Funk Kruger (2009), and her brother Jack Funk (2010).
Katie was born Sept. 15, 1924, in Laird, Sask., to German-Russian Mennonite immigrant parents from Ukraine. She grew up in Blaine Lake, Sask., and attended Laird Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church. She remembered the Depression years when her father owned the grocery store and helped some survive through his generosity; the grasshopper scourges and droughts. During Temperance, their neighbour sold bootleg whiskey Saturday nights. Katie saw King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at close range at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, during their Royal Tour of Canada in 1939.
As a teenager, she wore broad-brimmed hats and a blue velvet beanie with a waving feather, thought the plain name her immigrant parents had given her didn’t match her dreams and called herself “Kay.”
Her parents’ love of storytelling helped her learn its significance in value formation, but their plans for better educational opportunities for their children did not include writing. “Writing?” Katie wrote later. “No one wrote for a living.” She enrolled in Saskatoon Technical Institute and worked as a legal stenographer in Saskatoon. A chance reading of Oswald Chambers’ book My Utmost for His Highest gave direction to her “happy-go-lucky” life. The book’s devotional for Saturday, September 1, 1944, “Destined to be Holy” “called forth faith on my part to believe that God wanted something of me.”
While camping in Prince Albert National Park on Aug. 6, 1945, she heard the news of the bombing of Hiroshima. That year she was baptized in Saskatoon, and was recruited to come to study at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg by the new president of the college, J.B. Toews, who also wanted her to be his personal secretary. She met Walter Wiebe while working together on a school publication, and they were married August 21, 1947 in Saskatoon Mennonite Brethren Church.
Katie and Walter soon discerned a calling toward a ministry of Christian journalism, which manifested itself in a series of moves, and through their work in various publications. Although religious journalism was dominated by men, Katie began to publish articles in The Canadian Mennonite and Christian Living. In 1961, while Walter completed his Master’s degree in Religious Journalism at Syracuse University in New York state, Katie worked in offices in Kitchener, Ont., to support their four children: Joanna, Susan, Christine, and James.
In 1962, she began a column, “Women in the Church” for The Christian Leader, a Mennonite Brethren publication. The name later became “Viewpoint” when Katie persuaded her editors that she had something to say to both women and men.
The family moved to Hillsboro, Kan., in September 1962, where Walter was to work at the Mennonite Brethren Publishing House. Katie had a part-time job at the General Conference Board of Missions. Weeks later, on November 17, 1962, having been ill for five years with a slowly progressive disease, Walter died.
She was no longer “Mrs. Rev. Walter Wiebe” and early widowhood had pushed Katie into the workforce. While a copy editor and proofreader at the Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, she continued to write freelance articles. In 1966, she became an English instructor at Tabor College. In 1968 she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Tabor. She earned a Master of Arts degree in 1972 from Wichita State University, and Tabor promoted her to Associate Professor in 1981.
By 1970, Katie Funk Wiebe was actively calling for a Mennonite Brethren study conference on “the position of women in the church.” Her first widely-read book was published in 1976; the autobiographical narrative Alone: A Search for Joy. She wrote stories of other Mennonite women, “women who were often overlooked because they were not part of the official historical accounts.”
She became involved in many levels of leadership in her denomination: as board member of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Hillsboro since 1976, on the Mennonite Central Committee Taskforce for Women in the Church and Society, and on the editorial board of Direction. She was a member of the Peace Section of the Mennonite Central Committee since 1975, and in the 1990s was on the Peace Education Commission of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.
She served on the General Conference Mennonite Brethren Board of Christian Literature from 1975, and as literature coordinator. From 1975 to 1978 she participated in the Women in Ministry Task Force of the MB General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel. In 1978, she was on the publicity committee for the Tenth Assembly of the Mennonite World Conference in Wichita.
She was a member of the Inter-Mennonite Women in Ministry Program. She was interim editor of the Christian Leader in 1995. From 2001–2005 she was editor of Rejoice!, the inter-Mennonite devotional guide. She spoke at retreats, seminars and workshops across the US and Canada, in Mennonite, General Conference Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren groups, as well as cultural and civic organizations.
In 1990, after 24 years, Katie retired from Tabor College as Professor Emeritus. She wrote her last column in The Christian Leader in 1991 after a 30-year run. That year, she also moved to Wichita, paring down her library, her most precious possession. She was eager, in her retirement, to serve the wider constituency of the church she loved deeply; to bring meaning to her life through writing and speaking of her own experience of aging and the role of older adults in the church, and of women’s issues. She began teaching memoir writing at The Shepherd Center, which became LifeVentures, a nondenominational nationwide organization that provides learning opportunities for older adults, where she also was a board member for about 12 years. She led workshops on aging and attended older adult retreats, continued to write and do editorial work, and traveled on behalf of the Mennonite Central Committee. In her lifetime, she visited India, Bangladesh, Nepal, the former Soviet Union, Europe and Central America. In 2011, she began writing a popular blog, Second Thoughts.
In 2013, Katie set up the Katie Funk Wiebe Fund with the Historical Commission of the U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren Churches to promote research and publication on the history and contributions of Mennonite Brethren women around the world. She joined Women4Women Knitting4Peace, and knitted many Peace Pal dolls and children’s hats for relief. She participated in a book club, gave a workshop in memoir writing at the Kansas Author’s Club 2013 annual convention, and enjoyed time with her family.
She has written more than 2,000 articles, columns and book reviews, and has written or edited more than two dozen books. Bless Me Too, My Father won a Silver Angel award in 1989. Another, Border Crossing: A Spiritual Journey, received a Silver Angel Honorable Mention. Life After Fifty is now available in large print edition for the visually impaired. The Storekeeper’s Daughter: A Memoir is the story of her growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, as the daughter of German-Russian immigrants. Other books on aging include Bridging the Generations and Prayers of an Omega. In 2014, she published A Strong Frailty: Aganeta Janzen Block, Heroine of the faith in the former Soviet Union, the story of her mother’s sister Neta, who survived 11 years in a forced labour camp. In 2015, Katie published My Emigrant Father: Jacob J. Funk, 1896–1986. That year, she also translated Terror, Faith and Relief: The Famine in Russia (Die hungersnot in Russland und Unsere Reise um die Welt), 1924, by D. M. Hofer, American relief administrator in Russia during World War I. Her final book was a revised edition of How to Write Your Personal and Family History: If you don’t do it, who will?, for 2017 release.
The Mennonite Health Association honored her with the Anabaptist Healthcare Award in 1993 for her ministries in mental health, women’s issues and aging. In 2000, The Mennonite chose her as one of 20 Mennonites having had “the most powerful influence on life and belief of the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church in the 20th century by raising the credibility of Mennonite writing and giving voice to widowhood and women’s concerns.” In 2000, the Tabor College Alumni Association gave her the Alumni Merit award for the year. An event honoring Katie’s life and work in 2010 at Tabor College featured the release of a “Festschrift” book, The Voice of a Writer: Honoring the Life of Katie Funk Wiebe, published by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission. The book reflects on Katie’s contribution to the thought and life of the Mennonite Brethren and the larger Mennonite/Anabaptist community. It also includes a comprehensive bibliography of her writings and presentations. When she received the 2014 Leslie K. Tarr Career Achievement award from the Word Guild of Canada, she was described as “an agent of transformation; a life force that has pushed its way through the firmly packed soil of tradition.”
Katie has been a member of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Saskatoon, the Winnipeg North End Church, Hepburn Mennonite Brethren Church, Kitchener Mennonite Brethren Church, Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church in Hillsboro, Kan., and at the time of her passing, she was a member of First Mennonite Brethren Church in Wichita. In her later years, the Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita was her church home. She taught adult Bible studies for more than five decades.
Katie was questing, curious, perseverant, loyal, invitational, loving, brave, true, a great story-teller and teacher, and always learning and growing. Jean Janzen, Mennonite poet, observes, “Her patient, skillful telling lives because of the fire in her soul – a passion to seek the truth and to record that journey.”
A viewing will be held 5-7 p.m. Oct. 28; a memorial service will be held Jan. 20, 2017, both at Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church, 655 S. Lorraine St. Wichita, Kan.
Donations can be made to:
- Katie Funk Wiebe Research Fund, c/o Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission, 1310 Taylor Ave., Winnipeg, MB, Canada R3M 3Z6
- Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Tabor College, 400 South Jefferson, Hillsboro, KS 67063
- Mennonite Central Committee.
—prepared by the Wiebe family
Selected recent writing in MB Herald:
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