According to The United Church Archives, there were 19 missionaries in The West China Mission Field in 1901. By 1917, there were 177 persons, of whom 67 were married women. These married women rarely received recognition for the heavy load they carried, managing home and children as well as developing programmes to reach local women and girls. My maternal grandmother, Agnes Gregg Davis Annis was one of these silent partners.
At the age of 3, Agnes’ newly-widowed father placed her in an orphanage. She lived there until she was 12. Adopted then, she was educated and trained as a nurse in Peterborough Ontario. A member of George Street United Church, Agnes met my grandfather Stanley Annis, when he was a student minister there. After what my grandfather terms ‘four tender years of waiting and anticipation’, they married. Together they traveled to Hartford Connecticut where my grandfather prepared for the mission field.
My mother, Mary Irene Annis, was born in Peterborough Ontario on August 20th, 1916. Stanley, Agnes and Mary then travelled across Canada by train and to China on board The Empress of Russia. They were on an adventure, bolstered by strong beliefs, their own youth and the company of similar adventurers in their company. From Shanghai, a river steamer took them up the Yangtze until the dangerous rapids prevented further passage, when they transferred to a Chinese junk. Mary, my mother said, “The Chinese junks were hauled by trackers on the rocky banks of the river. About fifty-five half-naked men dragged the boat by long plaited bamboo lines. They had to scramble along the precipitous rocky shore, sometimes on hands and knees, others with footholds only for their toes. Some had grass sandals, some were barefooted.” Then came the 11-day journey from Chungking to Chengtu on sedan chairs called The Overland Limited.
My grandparents spent the required two years in Chengtu learning the language. At this time in Chengtu, there was fierce fighting. The streets were littered with refuse, stagnant water, and dead bodies. During the hot summer months the mission families to the mountains to escape the heat of the city.
Agnes gave birth to two sons, Edward and Harold. Harold, in infancy developed malaria. A fourth child Lloyd was born in Chunchow. Yet Harold’s illness continued to plague him. On advice from doctors, Agnes and Stanley went on furlough in order to take Harold to Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto, where he spent three months.
The year of furlough over, the family returned to the field. They travelled on The Empress of Asia with Dr. Anderson’s family, the Sopers and Dr. Williams’ family. Appointed to Chungking, Agnes assumed the role of matron to the Chungking Canadian School.
The increasing instability between the National Revolutionary Army and all foreign interests spilled into the Annis family. My mother, described how her family was awakened by the household staff and told to flee. They escaped to the river and hid in the bulrushes as their house was ransacked. Everything was taken. Even the stairs were torn from the walls to see if anything was hidden. They were left with only their night clothes. All mission workers were withdrawn to Shanghai. Stanley tried to return but was turned back due to continued violence against foreigners. The children attended French school for four months, then the family went to the mountains. My mother said, “Father was in need of a rest and spent much of his time sitting outside among the shade of the bamboo trees. Harold was not well either at this time, a relapse from the earlier bout of malaria.” In a letter, Retta Kilborn lamented the fear that “our people will lose heart and that when the way is open to return, there will not be enough who want to go back.”
The Annis family returned to Canada. My mother noted she and her brothers knew their father was not well. They spent the summer at Ocean Park, a church camp south of Vancouver. With a year in Vancouver where the children attended school, Stanley considered whether to return to the mission field. In 1927 he resigned and entered ministry with the newly formed United Church of Canada.
Stanley and Agnes served in Cardston Alberta, then Sprucedale near Parry Sound. In Thornbury Ontario, a son William was born. In Toronto at Woodbine United Church Agnes organized soup kitchens and provided sandwiches at the door for the destitute. The minister’s salary was often decreased because of lack of funds. The church lost the manse to the bank and the family rented a home across the street. My grandmother was heard to say they were missionaries at home for times were difficult for everyone. In 1937, Stanley and Agnes moved to Markdale Ontario, serving a three point charge. It was here my mother Mary Annis, met my father, Nelson Armstrong.
Then in the winter of 1938, Harold, succumbed to the fallout of malaria at the age of 19. His kidneys simply wore out. Agnes seemed to lose heart. Lloyd, her second youngest son said she was never quite the same again.
The eleven years in the mission field marked Agnes’ life as the woman, the mother who had lived in China. As she and Stanley served in ministry, they continued to be introduced as having served in China and were asked to share the message and the life they had experienced. But the effects of that time took its toll. Agnes died of a stroke at 61 in 1948.
My grandmother’s story continues to touch our lives generations later. My mother told me about being carried in baskets on the backs of men. My grandmother told her memories with small wooden figurines that now belong to her great grandchildren. I tell my grandmother’s story, but it is now influenced by my own experiences. In this age of optimal choices, I remember she had few to make. She followed her dutiful path. This is a legacy of which I am very proud.
Annis Lynn Armstrong Wyvill
Author of Agnes Annis, Mother and Missionary