Cunningham, Irene (Jespersen)

Irene Cunningham always knew that God guided her life. Her life began conventionally in Stony Plain, Alberta, where she was born June 4, 1915 to Anna and Andrew Jespersen. Ming, as she is called today, grew up on the family farm with six brothers and two sisters. "We all learned how to work," Ming remembers. "Mother was a good teacher. She taught me to milk cows, cook and sew."

The Jespersens lived just a quarter of a mile from the school, so the children would do the milking, work at their chores until the first bell rang and then run to classes. While in Stony Plain, Ming completed Grade 8 Conservatory Music. Ming enjoyed skating, visiting, picnics with family and school friends and music at every opportunity.

Alter high school, Ming attended the Prairie Bible Institute for three years. Later on, Ming felt led to go to China as a missionary. To prepare herself she enrolled in an 18-month midwifery course at the Beulah Home for unwed mothers in Edmonton. During this time she met and became engaged to Donald Cunningham who was also bound for the mission field in China.

In 1940, Ming arrived in China and then with a small party of missionaries began a six-month trek into the interior to reach her mission station. The travellers, including Ming, tried their best to evade the Japanese. During her years in China she did a lot of medical work.

When Ming and Don had each served their two years in China, they were married and went to northern China near Tibet to work with the Chinese speaking Miao tribe. During their first years with the Miao, two children were born to Ming and Don, a daughter, Betty, followed two years later by a son, Gordon.

When Communist rule was instated, all missionaries were considered to be American spies. Her family was wanted at the police station. These interrogations were repeated several times over the next few years. During this fearful time, Marion was born.

For the next year, Ming, the children and two women, one from Australia and one from Switzerland lived at the station. Their Miao neighbors were forbidden to help them, but often late at night someone would knock on their door, offering a fish or some vegetables.

As months passed, Ming was told she had two days to get out of China. Ming hoped that Don would be sent home with them, but it was not to be. When Don followed a few months later, the family was sent home to Canada.

Ming spent the next years cooking for church camps at Rocky Mountain House and Pioneer Camp south of Sundre. It was here that the young campers gave Irene Cunningham her nickname, Ming.

In 1978 Ming and Don retired to Sundre but Ming continued to cook for the camp until 1997. She has no regrets despite the hardships she has experienced. Her advice to young people is: "Learn all you can when you're young. You never know when you're going to need it."

-By Edna Bakken

Category: Sundre