Obituary: Eleanor Strugnell

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Eleanor Strugnell, missionary: born Oxfordshire 31 January 1887; married 1941 William Wilson (died 1958); died Concepcion, Chile 8 June 1993.

ELEANOR STRUGNELL - known to everyone as 'Granny Struggles' - was one of the most enduring and irresistible missionary figures of this century. Long before the British conscience was awakened to Third World need she gave her life to the poor and destitute.

From the beginning she defied expectations. When she was born in Oxfordshire in 1887, she was so feeble the doctor put her in a shoe-box beside the wood stove and expected her to die. Ninety years later she could be seen riding round the Chilean countryside on the back of a motorbike.

Eleanor Strugnell was born into an irreproachably respectable family. (Her nickname derived partly from her maiden name, partly from her favourite hymn 'Jesus knows all about our struggles'.) Her parents were employed by royalty and she herself began her professional life as a governess to local aristocracy. But from the age of eight she had set her heart on working overseas as a missionary. Twenty-five years later she persuaded her family to let her go.

In 1920 she was accepted by the South American Missionary Society and set sail for Argentina. Here she began her work in Alberdi, running an orphanage for girls and helping in the local church - never having had previous experience of either. But six years later she was sent to Chile, where she spent the rest of her life among the Araucanian (Mapuche) Indians - one of the most tenacious tribes in South America.

The Mapuche, alone among the indigenous people, had successfully resisted the Spanish invaders and eventually secured their land rights. Granny Struggles learnt their language and lived among them in great simplicity. She taught at the local missionary schools and spent the summer travelling round the country reaching the more remote communities to teach hygiene, to explain the Gospel and generally to encourage and help where she could.

She travelled the vast, undulating country alone, and mostly by horseback, at a time when there were few roads and it was not unusual for the horses to wade belly deep in mud after the rains. She spent the night with the Indians in their homes. Race and class were no barriers to her. She spoke Spanish, as well as Mapuche, and her home was open to university professors, ex-prisoners, MPs, visiting missionaries, Indians and Europeans, all of whom were subjected to her cooking, including her famous 'purple peril' - unspecified jam made in rusty tins.

In 1941 she married Canon William Wilson. 'Daddy' Wilson was much older than Struggles, having been one of the founders of the original missionary station among the Mapuches. He fought alongside them for their land rights and was greatly revered. Chile honoured him with the Order of Merit - the highest award given to foreigners.

Together she and 'Daddy', ostensibly retired, began a new work together as a sort of travelling roadshow, he as a medical missionary, she teaching hygiene and working with families, taking with them their first-aid kit and their magic lantern.

For many years they travelled in a converted bullock cart - rather like a Romany caravan. They had no bullocks, only the cart, so word spread that if a community wanted a visit, they had to provide the ox-power. This they willingly did, and Granny and her husband were always on the move, always in constant demand.

After Wilson's death in 1958 Strugnell continued her ministry, failing to recognise that she herself was now old. She was a regular prison visitor and worked among the elderly. In her eighties she began a new career teaching English conversation at the University of Temuco and it was during the course of this work, she having by now reached 90, that she finally decided she was too old to ride horseback and persuaded her students to take her visiting on the back of their motorbikes.

A severe stroke in 1985 did not dampen Granny Struggles's enthusiasm for evangelism. Barely able to speak - though she could still sing hymns in both Mapuche and English - she would motion for those helpers around her whom she knew were not Christian to read her the Bible, carefully picking out the passages she thought most likely to lead them to her Lord.

After reaching 100 Struggles finally lost all power of speech, but on receiving her telegrams from the Queen and the Queen Mother she was able to exclaim joyfully, 'La-la-la]'

After 73 years as a missionary, Granny Struggles has left behind her three generations of Chilean Christians, many now the leaders of the Chilean Church.