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Anna Bartsch (1897–1989)

Written by Elizabeth & David Giesbrecht, based on Anna’s autobiography, The Hidden Hand

Three countries were home to Anna Bartsch. She was born in Ukraine, made Canada her adopted land and served as a pioneer missionary in Congo. In her parents’ household was a bookcase filled with volumes by the evangelists Spurgeon, Moody and Finney. Anna was an avid reader, occupying her mind with Scripture memorization as well as the literary masterpieces available to her. As a ten-year-old girl she also discovered missionary magazines, through which she learned of the spiritual needs of people in distant lands. Her young mind could not have imagined that a tangled web of events would eventually land her in the heart of an emerging mission field.

Bartsch family (Anna in back)

Bartsch family (Anna in back)

Anna’s hunger for knowledge led her to attend the Mennonite Brethren Bible School in Tschongraw, Crimea, where she studied with A. H. Unruh. However, the devastating civil unrest in Russia and growing concern for the family’s safety convinced her father, Johann Funk, to consider emigration. Facing an uncertain future at best, thirty-year-old Anna fervently prayed for three requests – a passport to Canada, the possibility of continuing her Bible training, and a marriage partner.

Twenty-five days after leaving her homeland Anna found employment in Canada.The first fall in her new homeland she enrolled in the Winkler (Manitoba) Bible School.The following spring she received a marriage proposal from Henry Bartsch, an aspiring young preacher. Following their marriage in 1928, the young couple settled down to farming in Saskatchewan. During a church service they heard Aaron and Ernestine Janzen, veteran Congo missionaries, appeal for additional workers. The next day, feeling an irresistible call to ministry, the Bartches knelt in their humble kitchen and committed themselves for missionary service.

In late fall 1930 Anna and Henry left Saskatchewan in their Model T Ford enroute to Winnipeg before leaving for Congo. Nearing the Manitoba border they encountered a blinding snow storm. When a policeman stopped and inquired about their destination in this kind of weather, Henry replied that they were off to Africa. The officer was baffled. “Well Mister,” he responded sarcastically, “in that case you better keep driving. You’ve still got a long way to go.”

By 1933, Anna together with her family, were finally at home in Bololo, Congo. In short order they established a church, a school, a farm and a medical clinic. Scarcely a year later the family received word from Ottawa that their Canadian passports were about to expire. The Bartsches considered three options: allowing their Canadian citizenship to lapse, thereby becoming stateless; ending their mission work and returning to Canada; or, for Henry to return alone in order to renew their citizenship. The family chose the latter, and so Henry started walking west on September 23, 1934.

Meanwhile, Anna continued with monumental courage not only parenting their growing family, but at the same time giving leadership to the mission work. Her days were filled with translation, music, church leadership, supervision of the school, medical work and nurturing her three children. During these difficult days she was often sustained by recalling the words of her beloved teacher, A. H. Unruh, “First work yourself to death, then pray yourself to life.”

It was now almost a year since she had seen her husband. Her Congolese neighbors began to surmise that Henry had been unfaithful, or perhaps even died. In any event, they felt that he would not be returning to Africa. How much longer could Anna hold out on her own? Three hundred and sixty days after setting out for Canada, a tired but jubilant Henry returned to his mission post with renewed citizenship papers in hand.

The demanding routine and difficult tropical climate took their toll on Anna’s health. By 1937 she was so exhausted that a doctor advised urgent medical leave. He suspected that in her deteriorated condition, Anna had contracted cancer as well. Weary and disappointed, the entire family left for Canada.

In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Henry returned to Africa upon request of the Canadian MB Conference. The understanding was that Anna and the four children were soon to follow. The Bartsch’s support group in Winnipeg was busy raising funds and assisting with preparations for the long, arduous trip. Anna, however, was becoming increasingly uneasy about these plans. After yet another sleepless night she decided to cancel the trip. Her friends in the church community were stunned and disappointed. A few weeks later the Sam-Sam, the ship on which she and the children had been booked, was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

Anna never returned to Congo. But many years later she discovered from another missionary, Herman Lenzman, that in an unreached area the children were singing, “Jesus Loves Me.” The local Congolese leader explained that Anna Bartsch had taught him this song. Anna was satisfied that she and her family been instrumental in pioneering Mennonite mission work in Africa. The seed that they had planted had grown and was beginning to bear a rich harvest.

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