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A Chhattisgarh town, Miss AC Funk and Titanic

Miss Funk had celebrated her 38th birthday on board the ship that sank shortly thereafter

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“Gone, but not forgotten.” The lettering on the stone slab is showing its age, so is the building where the plaque is. Worn plaster, broken walls, trees and vines have infested what used to be a sprawling school campus in Janjgir, a sleepy town in the heart of Chhattisgarh.

In this dusty borough of 40,000, Titanic, not the James Cameron film but the ill-fated luxury ocean liner, is the stuff of legend. Here, the stars are not Cameron’s Rose and Jack but real-life missionary Annie Clemmer Funk. The plaque celebrates her incredible life.

An American missionary who made Janjgir her home at the turn of the 20th century, Funk was a passenger on the luxury ship and among the 1,500 people who died in one of the deadliest maritime disasters of modern times. In her ticket, Funk put down Janjgir-Champa, the town’s name at the time, as her hometown. Had the RMS Titanic not hit an iceberg thousands of miles away and gone down in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage in 1912, who knows the campus might have continued Funk’s mission of educating girls.

Born on April 12, 1874 in Pennsylvania in the United States, Miss AC Funk, as locals remember her, worked with the immigrants and served among the African-Americans in her country after finishing college. She dreamt of being a missionary and came to India at the age of 32 in December 1906, as the first female Mennonite missionary.

She joined the Mennonite Church in Janjgir — then part of Central Province — and in July 1907, she opened a one-room school for girls. She started with 17 students.

“She opened the first girls’ school of this region that provided free education, food and hostel accommodation. It was a residential school meant for orphan girls,’’ said 87-year-old Saroj Singh, who is the principal of the local St John’s English Medium School. In those days, there were no medical facilities, and if parents died, villagers brought the orphan girls to the school. “Miss Funk looked after them and provided them education. Over the years, she became popular as she learnt Hindi to interact with the locals,” Singh said.

But, a telegram in 1912 changed it all. Funk’s mother was seriously ill and she was asked to “come back home at once”. She took a train to Bombay, from there boarded the ship Persian to the French port town of Marseille. A boat brought her to Southampton, England, for her journey home on board the SS Haverford.

But, the ship was laid up due to a coal strike. With the help of a tour agent, Funk managed to secure a passage on the Titanic. Her ticket (No. 237671) cost her £13, a tidy sum. She boarded the ship on April 10, 1912. The Titanic manifest mentions ‘Funk Miss Annie Clemmer’ of Janjgir-Champa, British India, as a passenger of second class, who boarded the vessel at Southampton for Bally in Pennsylvania.

What followed is well-documented. Titanic, the largest ship of those times and protected by the best technology money could buy, collided with an iceberg at 11.40pm on April 14 and sank. Funk, who celebrated her 38th birthday on board the vessel, was among the dead. In her death, Funk’s sacrifice overshadows what Cameron scripted for Jack.

“According to a report, Miss Funk gave her seat on a lifeboat to a mother, who had failed to get a coupon for the boat, realising the pain the little child would suffer, if separated from her mother. It reminded Miss Funk of her ailing mother,” said Raipur-based archaeologist and author Rahul Kumar Singh. “She left the lifeboat and drowned. It’s a tragic story of sacrifice of this missionary.’’

Three years later, the girls’ school on the 19-acre mission campus, opposite the Mennonite church, was named Annie C Funk Memorial School. A double-storey school-cum-hostel building was constructed and a plaque mentioning Funk and the Titanic disaster was affixed to the entrance. Fittingly, iron girders used in the building were shipped from England, said Singh.

The school closed down in 1960 due to shortage of funds. Today, the building is missing the roof, doors and windows. Walls tell a story of neglect, but its dust-laden corridors, stairways, classrooms and the dining hall reveal what was—a place where the young were sheltered and educated.

“In my growing years, I heard so much about Miss Funk, that I decided to be a part of her school,’’ said Saroj Singh, who taught at Annie C Funk Memorial School for 10 years till 1960. “Now a few relatives and friends of Miss Funk back home are collecting funds to revive the school-cum-hostel here,” said Singh, who joined a government school and, after her retirement, went to St John’s school.

St John’s High School is on the mission campus and is housed in a colonial building with tiled roof. The building once was residence-cum-guest house for the missionaries.

Funk is very much etched in public memory. The Titanic connection sometimes brings tourists to the church, the mission campus and the school building. In 2012, her death centenary year, the Mennonite Church, members of the mission, and locals lit up the school building and held a series of events in Funk’s honour.

“Miss Funk was associated with this church as a missionary and teacher. The original church where it was founded is now a graveyard and it was shifted to its present location on December 12, 1912. More than a century later, Janjgir continues to remember her for her services and sacrifice,” said church treasurer Kirti Singh.

Funk is gone but not forgotten in this Chhattisgarh town.

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