The Friesen family has had roots in India since the early 1900s when my great grandparents, Peter A. and Helena Friesen, answered the call to missions following news of a severe famine. They went out under the Mennonite Board of Missions. After Helena passed away, Peter married Florence Cooprider.
My grandfather, John Friesen, was born and served in India with his wife, Genevieve.
My father, Gene Weldon Friesen, was born in India. He met my mother, LuEtta, at Hesston (Kansas) College, and they returned to India to serve together when I was a year old.
While I only have snapshot memories of growing up in Shantipur—I was age 4 when we returned—the family stories of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have made a big impression on me. They opened my eyes to the broader world and gave me a firm foundation for a faith that expresses itself in service to others.
Instead of a big celebration for my parents’ 50th anniversary, they wanted to share a bit of India with the next generation. So this was the first time that my husband, James; daughter, Rebekah; and my two nieces, Genny and Bea, were in India.
Remembering the first generation in India
In Sankra, we attended the dedication of a new hospital, built with funds donated by the Friesen family in memory of my great-grandmother, Florence Cooprider Friesen. She was a doctor and started a clinic there almost 100 years earlier. After the morning church service—held at the church my great-grandfather helped to build—we all streamed out of the church and walked down the road, past the shell of a bungalow Peter and Florence had lived in, to the site of the new hospital, for the official dedication. The hospital is located on the same property as the original clinic Florence worked from. It will be a blessing for this rural part of India to have a hospital in their area.
Scheduled to be finished in March 2016, Sankra Christian Hospital is still under construction. Photo by Cynthia Friesen Coyle.
This is one of two plates depicting the life and work of Dr. Florence Cooprider Friesen and her husband, Bishop Peter A. Friesen. It was made by their son, Paul Friesen, and presented to Mr. Ajit Lal, chair of the Mennonite Medical Board, during the dedication service. They will be displayed in the new hospital. Photo by Cynthia Friesen Coyle.
Remembering the second generation in India
One highlight of our trip was going to the small village of Mangal Terai out in the forest and sharing a meal with members of the church and friends of the family. This village was started by a group of about 40 people who had been cured of leprosy but were no longer accepted back in their own villages. The government gave them this patch of ground in the forest, far from others, to start life over again. My grandparents were asked by the Mennonite conference to be their pastor as a number of them had come from Shantipur and had been a part of the congregation there. John and Genevieve visited often and started a church there. The church building they helped build is no longer standing, but a new and larger church is in its place.
Our time in Mungal Terai began at the church where the congregation gave our family a warm welcome. Ram Prasad, a long time friend of the family, greets Weldon Friesen. Photo by Cynthia Friesen Coyle.
Remembering the third generation in India
In Shantipur, we toured the bungalow my father lived in as a child and the clinic he treated leprosy patients in as a doctor. That evening, my father gave the sermonette during the Christmas service at Shantipur Mennonite Church. He shared memories of his childhood in that church and how he used to sit and listen to his father preach from that very podium.
Rebekah, James and Carl share a meal with Mrs. Archana Netam and her niece, Rishita Nath (far left), on the porch of Shantipur Mennonite Church following their Christmas program. LuEtta, Weldon, and granddaughter, Genny, talk with Eunice Das in the background. Photo courtesy of LuEtta Friesen.
Remembering my own childhood in India
While playing in a park area during the trip, my daughter picked up some dry grass, put it together as a broom, and started sweeping the ground. I had to smile because when I was little, I did the exact same thing.
Rebekah has fun sweeping Indian style at a park near Shantipur. Photo by Cynthia Friesen Coyle.
The ties between central India and the Friesen family are weaker in my generation. We don’t know the language, and names and faces are less familiar. Many of the people who personally knew my grandparents and parents have either passed away or are getting older. The stories of those generations may fade away as well. But some things live on … the legacy of health care in those rural areas, the churches that were planted are still there, and God’s work continues on. Will we return to India again someday? I don’t know. My daughter says she wants to. Maybe her next trip to India will be with her good friend, who also has Indian roots. … And the story goes on.