In 1894, William Sheppard spoke at the college about his service in the Congo (Zaire) and asked for volunteers to join him. At that time, Mary was 56 years old—an age when most people today think about retirement. With a small body weighing about 90 pounds, she also looked frail. Once again, she didn’t see any of these conditions as impediments, and applied for the position.
If you think you are too old for something you wish to do, Maria Fearing can prove you wrong. She learned to read when she was 33 and became a missionary at 56. She would have continued until her death if the Presbyterian mission board hadn’t stopped her when she was 77. Far from being done, she continued to teach Sunday School for another 16 years.
From House Servant to Primary School Teacher
Born into slavery on July 26, 1838 on a plantation near Gainesville, Alabama, Maria spent the first thirty years of her life working as a house servant and nanny for six of the eight children of the Winston family. To do so, she was separated from her parents, Jesse and Mary, who worked for the same family in the fields.
The Winstons were Presbyterians, so Maria grew up hearing the children repeating Bible verses and the catechism, listening to hymns and missionary stories, and sitting in the back row of the church pews on Sundays.
She moved to Gainsville immediately after emancipation, working as a live-in maid. Five years later, at age 33, she discovered that the Freedman’s Bureau School (Talladega College), in 1865 by two former slaves, provided literacy courses to African Americans. She then quit her job and traveled 150 miles by either wagon or on foot, because the train was too expensive. As many other students, she financed her studies by working on campus. There, she started a close friendship with two class-mates: Lucy Gantt, who later married the missionary William Sheppard, and Lilian Thomas. The disparity in age (Lucy and Lilian were 29 and 34 years younger than Maria, respectively) made no difference in their relationship.
Eventually, Maria learned enough to be able to teach children in the rural schools of Calhoun County (even though she never earned a formal teaching degree). This policy was encouraged at a time when basic literacy of former enslaved people was seen as urgent. By living frugally, Maria saved enough of her earnings to buy a home.
A Missionary Vision
In 1894, William Sheppard spoke at the college about his service in the Congo (Zaire) and asked for volunteers to join him. At that time, Mary was 56 years old – an age when most people today think about retirement. With a small body weighing about 90 pounds, she also looked frail.
Once again, she didn’t see any of these conditions as impediments, and applied for the position. She didn’t even let an initial denial deter her, but continued to insist until she was approved, on condition that she was self-supporting.
Her only possession was a house she had bought in Anniston, and she didn’t hesitate to sell it. With that money, plus $100 donate by the women of the Congregational Church in Talladega, she was able to pay for the one-way trip from New York to the Congo and support herself over the first two years, until the Southern Presbyterian missionary board recognized her as a full missionary and began to send her a salary.
The trip from New York to Luebo, in the Congo, lasted over two months. Fist, Maria and the missionary team (which included William and Lucy Sheppard and Lilian) changed ships in London. Once they reached the Congo, they had to travel 1200 miles inland, by wagon, riverboat, and canoes, to their mission station. At the mission, Lilian and Maria were housed together in a mud hut. Soon after their arrival, they began to care for four young Congolese girls.