Norfolk centenarian was teen rebel and mission nurse
A former teenage rebel, who later became a pioneer missionary nurse in China and Malaysia, has just celebrated her 100th birthday in Norfolk. Mike Wiltshire reports.
“I was a rebel and a tom-boy, expelled from two schools,” recalls Mary Welander, who admits she was once “a menace to family and friends,” until she surprised everyone by becoming a convinced Christian at the age of 15. She went on to give a lifetime of heroic service to countless numbers of people in China, Malaysia and the UK.
Mary now lives at Eckling Grange, the Christian residential care home in Dereham. As a very sprightly 100-year-old, she says: “I don’t even use a wheelchair at home yet!”
Mary is modest about her experiences, but they are remarkable: she has faced near-death in the Chinese revolution, “lived by faith” and laboured on amid terrorism in South-East Asia, delivered babies as a midwife, learned to pull out hundreds of decaying teeth, confronted a 21ft python, ministered to Chinese lepers, started prayer meetings, established churches, pioneered literature evangelism and Bible courses in nine countries, written life-changing books and, after 27 years in the tropics, moved back to the UK to encourage Christian work in the east of England.
Born on the family farm on Dartmoor on March 13, 1917, Mary is the daughter of a Swedish engineer, Sven Welander, and a devout English mother, Georgina.
Mary’s life was transformed after she came to faith in a profound conversion in 1932; “There was a new love and loyalty surging through my heart…,” she said. “The sun had begun to shine, especially on the first Easter after my conversion, when, reading the resurrection story, I felt the thrill at the personal message, ‘Jesus said unto her, Mary!’ ” (John 20:6).
Mary qualified as a State Registered Nurse just as World War One began, and became a staff nurse at a military hospital. A Christian magazine, entitled China’s Millions, prompted her to apply to the China Inland Mission. Her ‘call’ to the mission field was a tough test, as she finally knelt in tears at midnight, saying: “Do as you like, Lord, I am all yours.”
In 1945, Mary sailed to Bombay, India, crossed the nation by train, then flew to China via Burma.
Between medical clinics in remote areas of North-West China, Mary did intensive language studies in Mandarin, while attending to Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolese patients, and helping many lepers who feared for their lives as Communist forces began to suppress all expressions of faith.
Although facing great danger in the revolution, the missionaries laboured on until put under house-arrest. Then all possessions were seized and Mary, with others, was deported in 1951, travelling vast distances in an open lorry in freezing weather to Hong Kong.
They were dark days, but Mary is encouraged by the fact that the Chinese church has grown rapidly with, perhaps, more than 100 million Christians today, eclipsing the 86 million members of the ruling Communist Party in a nation that is technically ‘atheist’.
In 1952, Mary was on her way to Malaya (now Malaysia), a land then in the grip of a fierce jungle war with Communist terrorists. General Gerald Templar had been sent to assume control ‘to win hearts and minds’ in a racially-divided community. Nicknamed ‘The Tiger of Malaya’, Templar especially looked for Mandarin speakers to serve among the marginalised Chinese – thus, people such as Mary were very welcome.
Much of Mary’s ministry in three areas – China, Malaysia and the UK – has involved great personal sacrifice. Mary says: “I set out to love and laugh, mourn and weep with those who rejoiced or sorrowed. I became one with them as a sister in Christ among local fellow-believers.”
After Mary retired from the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (formerly CIM), she saw England as her third mission field, starting Bible study groups and helping to plant and grow churches in rural areas such as Tydd Gote, near Wisbech, and Hitcham, between Hadleigh and Stowmarket.
Her long-time friend, Rosemary English, former JP and prominent Christian in Norwich, said: “Mary’s work of church planting in rural East Anglia brought rewarding lessons in dependence on God and the discovery that age is no barrier.”
Mary’s first book, I Was a Rebel, has been reprinted five time and has inspired many young people to Christian service. In the book, Mary, looking towards heaven, says her thrilling adventures are part of an “unfinished symphony” and concludes: “The traditional ending is perfectly true – ‘She lived happily ever after,’ because she will.”
Pictured above is Mary Welander.