Irene (Jespersen) Cunningham



Life and Work

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.

After 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


Reflections of Ming

As I write this my mother is approaching 85 years of age, still full of life, curiosity and wonder! Her life continues to exhibit an overabundance, if one can say that, of love - love of family, friends, acquaintances and, above all, God.

My earliest memories started in China in the '40s where she and my father were missionaries with the China Inland Mission. It was a time of upheaval and danger with armies and gangs of marauders on the move. We were robbed of everything, including my doll and my mother's simple wedding band, by a rogue band of Nationalist soldiers. A few days later my mother was sewing up a gaping chest wound on one of the soldiers, with ordinary needle and thread. Then the Communists came and imprisoned my father as an American spy. My mother and her three children were then evicted from their simple home. We were allowed to stay in an old pigsty until we were able to leave China, months later. Our neighbours were prohibited from helping us and were very frightened. The only reasonable food my father could receive in prison was what my brother and 1 could take to him.

Mom must have been frightened but she always expressed a trust in God, which communicated itself to me and probably to my younger brother and my baby sister. I recall asking her if the angels could come and take us away so we would be safe. I never saw her as anything but a secure and steadying influence in those terrible times. That attitude has continued throughout her incredible life.

I cannot say enough about my mother. She was, and still is, my mentor! She set an example for me and for countless others, in areas of spirituality, housekeeping, hospitality and gardening, to say nothing about love, enthusiasm, organization and an exuberant love of life.

Memories of China By Edna Bakken

Memories of China

One day, Ming and her friends were given two days to get out of the mission house. She went with her children to a nearby abandoned estate. That same day, some of the local children began throwing rocks at Ming's house. Ming was thinking she could not stand another thing, when suddenly the rock throwing stopped. Years later Ming learned that on that day her mother-in-law felt compelled to pray for her. When she and some friends began to pray, the rocks stopped.

Ming's Work

Ming's desire to help people did not end with her expulsion from China. From 1952 -1965 Ming and Don raised over 50 children where parents were serving in South East Asian missions. For each of the next 13 years, the Cunninghams family consisted of their own five children (Allan and Elwyn were born after the Cunninghams returned to Canada) and about 20 missionaries' children. The children stayed with Ming and Don from their arrival until they completed high school.