Death of Mrs. Ruth Bunker, former missionary to Sri Lanka

Death of Mrs. Ruth Bunker, former missionary to Sri Lanka

May 11, 1906 – February 6, 2011

The Global Ministries community is saddened by the death of Ruth Culbertson Bunker on Sunday, February 6, 2011.  Ruth Bunker, with her husband Reverend Dr. Sydney K. Bunker, were missionaries with the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and continued with the United Church Board For World Ministries (UCBWM) from 1937 to 1966 at Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Ruth Culbertson was born on May 11, 1906, in Geneseo, New York, where she spent her childhood, attended a teacher training college, and qualified to teach primary school.  She moved to East Williston, Long Island, where she taught kindergarten for nine years.  Among her students were three children of the family of Ernest and Edith (Bunker) Davis.  They were pleased with the way Ruth taught their children and, liking her as they did, introduced Edith’s brother Sydney Bunker to Ruth. Ruth and Sydney were married a year later on July 9, 1936, and moved to Talladega, Alabama, where Syd taught religion at Talledega College and Ruth taught first grade.

While working at Talladega College, Alabama, a home mission college for African-American students, Syd accepted the offer by the ABCFM (now Wider Church Ministries/Global Ministries) to become the Principal and later first President of Jaffna College.  Syd, his sister Edith, and their three brothers had been born and raised in southern Africa as the children of Congregational missionaries.  Syd himself had hoped to return to South Africa as a missionary but that country was not hospitable to missionaries at that time, and he welcomed the offer to serve at Jaffna.

In December 1937 Syd and Ruth Bunker arrived at Jaffna College to an extravagant Jaffna welcome.  There they lived and worked and raised their two daughters, Charlotte and Grace, until 1966.

During their 29 years at Jaffna College Ruth did a myriad of different jobs at the college and for the American Ceylon Mission.  While Syd was administering and teaching, Ruth did everything else that needed doing.  She organized and led a primary school percussion band in her earliest days and played the piano for daily college Morning Prayers.  She ran the Sunday School in the Vaddukoddai Church and in later years assisted with the Sunday Schools of the whole Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India.  Much of Ruth’s time was given to being hostess for Jaffna College functions and meals, and she gave hospitality to college and mission guests in the Principal’s Bungalow.  She used her talents as a seamstress to do many jobs for the college, the largest being the making of the curtains for the stage in the assembly hall.  In addition, Ruth participated in Kodaikanal School, the American mission boarding school in South India where the missionaries in the area sent their children.  She taught second grade and was housemother of the girls’ dormitory for a while. In her last years in Jaffna she helped to supervise the work of weaving and other crafts being done by indigent women at the Women’s Center.  But the thing everyone remembers most about Ruth was her work with the choir. Literally dozens of alumni told daughter Grace, who later served in Sri Lanka as well, proudly that they had sung in “Mrs. Bunker’s choir.”  They spoke of how she taught them to read and love Western music.  They remembered the happy times they had at rehearsals, singing in church, and at special functions, and how animated Ruth was as she put her whole self into conducting.

In 1966 Syd and Ruth decided it was time to leave Jaffna College and turn over the leadership of Jaffna College to a Sri Lankan for the first time.  Though she missed her life in Sri Lanka, she readjusted to life in the U.S. quite easily.  After Syd’s unexpected death in 1968, Ruth moved to East Hartland, Connecticut, where she made a home where Charlotte and her family and Grace gathered for happy family times. During her 18 years in East Hartland, she became the President of the Trustees of the Jaffna College Fund and joyously received visits from many Jaffna College former students, faculty, choir members, and friends.

In 1987 when Charlotte and her family moved to Pittsboro, NC, Ruth moved to nearby Chapel Hill, where she lived independently for 14 years, until 2001.  Daughter Grace served at Jaffna College and Uduvil Girls’ College (UGC) with Global Ministries from 2001 until 2005, when she returned to the U.S. and found a perfect home with Ruth in Southern Village, in Chapel Hill. 

Ruth is survived by her daughters Charlotte B. Sullivan of Pittsboro, NC, and Grace S. Bunker of Chapel Hill, NC; her granddaughter and husband, Kathleen Sullivan and Michael Lynch; and her great grandson, Rowan. 

A Memorial Service will be held at United Church of Chapel Hill, 1321 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill, NC, on Sunday, February 13, at 2:00 pm. 

Messages of condolence may be sent to Charlotte Sullivan, 440 Fearrington Post Road, Pittsboro, NC 27312-8520, or Grace Bunker, 102 Melrose Place, Apt C, Chapel Hill, NC 27516-0429.

Gifts in Ruth’s memory may be sent to Wider Church Ministries/Global Ministries, Attn: Financial Services, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100. The family has asked that these gifts be used for flood relief in Sri Lanka.

We are sad, but we are joyful in the knowledge that she is with God, her husband, and all the loved ones who have gone before her, family and friends.  We are sure she has received a tumultuous welcome.