WICHITA, Kan. — Katie Funk Wiebe, a Mennonite Brethren writer and educator who challenged church institutions to open leadership roles to women, died Oct. 23. She was 92.
A gifted storyteller and essayist, Wiebe became a leading voice of the emerging Mennonite women’s movement. She influenced the wider Anabaptist community as a speaker, provocateur, feminist, teacher, mentor, historian, author, editor and columnist.
Wiebe taught at Tabor College in Hillsboro from 1966 to 1990. She wrote or edited more than two dozen books, including memoirs that expressed the feelings of loss, uncertainty and hope of a young widow who sought to serve the church in ways beyond those then possible for a woman.
She challenged the church “to open avenues for service for all who have been neglected or have had their gifts overlooked,” Heidebrecht and Rempel wrote.
In a 1983 Christian Living article, “Why Shouldn’t I Look and Think My Age?,” Wiebe concluded: “I smile at the woman in the mirror. She smiles back. We like each other.”
Wiebe wrote more than 2,000 articles, columns and reviews, including many book reviews for Mennonite World Review.
“Katie was a spokesperson and prophet for Mennonite Brethren, encouraging them to embrace the broader Mennonite family, to recognize the value of Mennonite relationships outside of ourselves,” said Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College. “She pushed the boundaries, and we are better for it.”
Tabor English professor Deborah Penner, who was a student of Wiebe’s, described her as a trailblazer, mentor and friend.
“Katie served as a role model for me: as a mother, a professor and a writer, at a time when many others told me that my goal to become a college professor after age 35 — with three young children in the home — was impossible to attain,” Penner said.
Born Sept. 15, 1924, to German-Russian Mennonite immigrants, she grew up in Blaine Lake, Sask. In 1945 she was baptized and entered Bible college, where she met Walter Wiebe. They married Aug. 21, 1947, and were called to Christian journalism.
In a field dominated by men, in 1962 she began a column for the MB magazine Christian Leader. First called “Women in the Church” and later “Viewpoint,” it ran for 30 years.
In September 1962, the family, with four children, moved from Kitchener, Ont., to Hillsboro, Kan., where Walter was to work at the Mennonite Brethren Publishing House. Weeks later, on Nov. 17, 1962, having been ill for five years with a slowly progressive disease, Walter died.
Early widowhood pushed Wiebe into the workforce as a copy editor and proofreader at the publishing house while continuing to write freelance articles. In 1966 she became an English instructor at Tabor College and became associate professor in 1981. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Tabor in 1968 and a master’s degree from Wichita State University in 1972.
Her autobiographical narrative Alone: A Search for Joy came out in 1976. She wrote stories of “women who were often overlooked because they were not part of the official historical accounts.” She took leadership roles in her denomination and spoke at retreats and workshops in the U.S. and Canada. She served Mennonite Central Committee as a member of the Peace Section and on the Taskforce for Women in the Church and Society.
In 1990 she retired from Tabor as professor emerita. She was interim editor of Christian Leader in 1995, and from 2001 to 2005 edited Rejoice!, the inter-Mennonite devotional guide.
In 2013 she 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 MB women around the world.
Agent of transformation
Among Wiebe’s books, Bless Me Too, My Father won a Silver Angel award in 1989. Border Crossing: A Spiritual Journey, received a Silver Angel honorable mention.
In 2015 she published My Emigrant Father: Jacob J. Funk, 1896-1986. A new edition of How to Write Your Personal and Family History will come out in 2017.
In receiving 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.”
In 2000, The Mennonite named her among the top 20 people who influenced the life and belief of Mennonites in the 20th century.
Also in 2000, the Tabor College Alumni Association gave her the alumni merit award.
In 2010 the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission published The Voice of a Writer: Honoring the Life of Katie Funk Wiebe, reflecting on her contributions to the MB church and wider Anabaptist community.
Wiebe was a member of First Mennonite Brethren Church in Wichita. In later years Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church was her church home.
She is survived by daughters Joanna Wiebe (Tim Baer) and Susan Wiebe; son James Wiebe (Kathy); seven grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and sister Susan Funk Kruger (Harold). In addition to her husband, she was preceded in death by daughter Christine Wiebe; sisters Frieda Schroeder and Anne Kruger; and brother Jack Funk.
A memorial service will be held Jan. 20 at Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita.
Memorials can be given to the Katie Funk Wiebe Research Fund, c/o Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission; the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan.; or Mennonite Central Committee.