Life Stories

Life Stories: Missionary work in Africa began her life of service

CorrespondentJuly 28, 2013 

  • Anne Boyd Cleveland Crane

    Jan. 21, 1922 born in the Belgian Congo (formal name of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo)

    1939 graduates from Central School in Lubondai, Congo

    1943 graduates from Austin College as class salutatorian, marries William Henry Crane in December

    1946 gives birth to the first of her four children, Anne, known as “Annie”

    1949 commissioned by the Presbyterian Mission Board to return to work in the Congo

    1954 last of her four children is born

    1961 moves to Kitwe, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia)

    1968 moves to Geneva

    1970 widowed

    1971 moves to Washington, attends the Washington Montessori Institute at Loyola University Maryland, in Baltimore; purchases her first home, a condo in Fairfax, Va.

    1972-1978 teaches young children at the Fairfax Montessori School

    1985 moves to Philadelphia to help her daughter, Carolyn, who was widowed with two young children

    1987 moves to Boston, begins writing her unpublished memoir “Home Was the Journey”

    1999 moves to Black Mountain to live in the retirement community Highland Farms

    2010 moves to Raleigh, living in Independence Village and joining West Raleigh Presbyterian Church; soon diagnosed with Leukemia

    July 4 dies at 91

At 91, Anne Crane’s interests were simple – crossword puzzles, current events, and knitting prayer shawls for the shut-ins as her church, West Raleigh Presbyterian. She spent most of the three years she lived in the area battling Leukemia, then died this month.

Few knew that “Abie,” as she was affectionately called, had spent decades as a missionary in the Congo. The prayer shawls she knitted in her final years were among the final notches in her lifetime’s work of service – most of which took place in Africa.

As was the custom, Crane was given a native Congolese Tshiluba name. Hers was “Tuyaya,” which meant, “We are going.” Her family found the name appropriate, for Abie made the most of a life that was dotted with more transition than stability. She faced everything in her path with resolve and gratitude.

Born in the Belgian Congo – the formal name of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo – during the colonial era, Crane was the daughter of missionaries. After attending college in the U.S., she married Hank Crane, her high school flame. Following his time in the military during World War II, they returned to Africa to serve multiple terms with the Presbyterian Mission Board.

During the first 10 years of their tenure, the Cranes were stationed outside of the provincial capital Kananga, then called Luluabourg. In addition to raising four children and opening her home to guests from all over the world, Abie volunteered her time educating the women and children in the local community. It was the beginning of a movement to empower women in a very traditional society.

“What mom and her cohorts were doing in those days were building a strong foundation for that,” said Anne Crane, her eldest child.

Abie helped run the girls home for the boarding school operated by the mission, organized literacy programs for adult Congolese women and sewed wedding gowns for brides interested in more Western styles. She helped oversee a small medical station, ran Bible study classes and even home-schooled some of her children over the years.

“She was an extraordinary woman because she had to learn to balance a lot of things in life. She was just an extremely giving person and also felt very strongly about looking at the positive,” said her daughter Carolyn Jackson.

Every few years the family received a year of sabbatical back in the U.S., though that time was hardly restful. She often traveled around the country to share her experience, something her family says could be difficult. Relating a life in the Congo to Westerners was no small thing, and Crane by nature was a private soul.

Her time in the Congo was marked by a number of politically tumultuous years as the country transitioned to independence. When Belgian Congo became the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Cranes moved to Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in the early 1960s.

In 1968, the family was once again on the move when her husband was sent by the Presbyterian Mission Board to work with the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Soon after they settled in to Switzerland, Hank was diagnosed with cancer.

Abie was a key caregiver, and was widowed just two years later.

Her sister-in-law, Peggy Cleveland, also spent time as a missionary in the Congo and remembers, “how gracious she was, how committed she was and how stoic she was.

“I was with her in Geneva, after her husband had died and she got the news that her mother had died. I never saw her shed a tear. I know how sad she was but I never saw her shed a tear.

“Growing up in the Congo gives you a certain kind of courage.”

There were times that Crane made the transatlantic flight from the U.S. to Africa with all four children by herself, not sure whether or not the airlines would be on strike.

“She was just undaunted by challenges,” Anne Crane, her daughter, said. “She would have been the first person to say her life was pretty easy compared to the kinds of challenges the vast majority of people in the world have to deal with.”

After she was widowed, Abie returned to the U.S. At age 50, she embarked on a career as a Montessori teacher, becoming certified at the Washington Montessori Institute and teaching young children in Fairfax, Va.

“It was no surprise to any of us that mother wanted to reinvest in a teaching career. She had always been a natural teacher to the four of us and loved working with young children,” Jackson said.

When Jackson’s husband died unexpectedly in the mid-1980s, Abie moved to Philadelphia to help with her two young grandchildren. She stayed for two years.

“My daughter still has recollections of coming home to ‘tea parties’ set up in the kitchen at her little table where Grandma would have cookies and juice in her play teacups and saucers. She was always game to take them on special outings to explore the world,” Jackson said.

Later, when living in Boston, Abie took in the daughter and granddaughter of a Congolese friend, Francois Katunda, who had been displaced by the violence overwhelming the country in the 1990s. She asked nothing in return, Katunda said, and took him in for a time as well.

“She really was willing to help other people,” he said.

When she was diagnosed with Leukemia, she participated in numerous drug trials, unwilling to remain passive in the face of a terminal illness, despite horrific side effects.

A few weeks before her death, Crane was still eager to go on picnics at Falls Lake in a wheelchair. “As weak as she was, she still wanted to live life,” Jackson said.

Though she lived in the U.S. the last 42 years, the Congo was still very much home. She still found ways to support the Congo through a charity at her daughter’s Boston church, Church of the Covenant via the Congo Education Fund.

“She was a strong spirit,” her daughter, Anne, said.

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