Flora Heebner, shown in this early 1900's photo, was the only long-term missionary sponsored by the Schwenkfelder Church. Heebner served in China for close to 40 years, returning at the start of WW II.
For her time, Flora Heebner was a very unusual woman.
In the late 1800’s, when less than 3 percent of women attended universities, Heebner made her mark at Oberlin College in Ohio. A native of Worcester Township, she was interested in doing more with her life than sewing, nursing the sick, cooking and cleaning.
So after graduation, sponsored by the Schwenkfelder Church, she decided to accept the calling of a missionary halfway around the world.
“She was a strong, courageous woman. She was not interested in the usual roles of that time period,” noted Candace Perry, curator of collections at the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center in Pennsburg. The center is home to an exhibit on Heebner running through Dec. 30.
Heebner traveled to China in 1904, arriving in Taiku in the Shanxi province. There she worked diligently to reestablish a mission there, which had been the site of a bloody massacre in 1900. Her predecessors had reportedly been executed at the site during the Boxer Rebellion, an effort by Chinese extremists to rid the country of foreign influence.
Her writing upon her arrival signified her thoughts on the rebirth of work there: “Day is coming again in Taiku, light after darkness.”
Heebner started an elementary school and married woman’s school there, focusing on social issues. One of her primary goals was to educate women and help them become more modern, but she also felt strongly about freeing Chinese people from the stronghold of opium addiction. She overstated in one of her letters home that 11 out of every 10 Chinese men were addicted to the substance.
Candace Perry, curator of collections at the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center in Pennsburg, makes adjustments to a short Manchurian coat, part of the Flora Heebner exhibit. The coat is among gifts Heebner sent to her family from the mission center.
In her role as a “Shih Niang” or teacher woman, Heebner immersed herself in the people and the work she set out to do.
“She embraced it, she didn’t complain. But she was homesick sometimes. In one letter she said she knew it was time to make apple butter at home and she missed it. But she was very sophisticated in terms of her world view,” Perry said.
It was during her close to 40 years in China, Heebner sent home hundreds of letters, amassed gifts from the people she served and sent mementos to her family. Those pieces make up the exhibit at the museum entitled, “Flora Heebner and the Chinese Mission.”
Her suitcase, books and photos tell the story of her time there, as do other items like several pairs of ornate women’s lotus shoes, which bound the feet to an ideal a total of 3 inches in length. The exhibit also has several embroidered textiles on display, showing the style of dress in the time period, and a child’s costume and “tiger hat.”
Perry pages through some of the collection of hundreds of Heebner's letters she sent home during her work abroad. Her family donated the letters to the museum.
There are also a number of tapestries, one made by her Chinese counterparts for Heebner’s furlough back to Pennsylvania, that mark the country’s culture. Another two depict the “Eight Immortals” of Chinese mythology.
The exhibit also showcases several pieces of Chinese animal symbolism, like a bronze lion/foo dog figure that would have been traditionally buried in a grave to guard the spirit of the deceased. An opium pipe and accoutrements make up another display.
The gifts and mementos she brought home with her have become invaluable not only to Heebner’s family and those in the states, but to the Chinese. When many of them destroyed photographs and cultural memorabilia under Communist leader Mao Zedong, for fear of being associated with the old government, Heebner’s photos of everyday Chinese life live on. They are increasingly rare.
Though her work was her lifeblood, Heebner was forced to flee China close to the start of World War II when it was unsafe for Westerners in the country. Japan invaded China in 1937; by 1942 Heebner had to board a boat back to the US.
She didn’t retire when she got back to the states; however, she worked as a missionary in Appalachia. She served at the Pine Mountain School in Kentucky until her death of natural causes in 1947. She was 72.
“She was remarkable,” Perry said of Heebner. “It would be interesting to have someone write a book on her. She knew and associated with the [Ernest] Hemingway family…We are learning more about her every day.”
For more information on “Flora Heebner and the Chinese Mission,” call the museum and heritage center at (215)679-3103, or visit www.schwenkfelder.org.