March 17: Strong Women: The Foremothers of Our Church preached with Brenda Kniebes

Strong Women: The Foremothers of This Church

Judges 4: 1-9a, Joshua 15: 15-19, Luke 8: 1-3

March 17, 2024 (Preached with Brenda Kniebes)

          Mike: We are in a four part message series that highlights strong women. This sermon series has not only been talking about strong women, but also features the preaching of strong women. We’ve heard Sherry Meyer and Connie Schreiber. Today, we get to hear from our Choir Director: Brenda Kniebes.

Brenda: I have known many women in my life that I looked up to and to have inspired me. Let me introduce you to some special ladies from our church’s past, the Furman sisters.  Cora born in 1881, Marjory in 1885, and Marie in 1894, were strong memorable women in the life of this church and community.

They were all born in the late 1800s and experienced many changes – horse and buggies to airplanes, the right to vote for women to the women’s liberation movement.

Their family moved to Jackson Court before Marie was born.  They grew up with their parents and an older sister who married and moved to Paw Paw.  They were only 3 blocks or so from our house.  I rode my bicycle by their house many times when I was younger.  I would stop sometimes for a quick hi if someone was on the porch. I have some specific memories of these ladies.  One is they always wore simple dresses with black low-heeled shoes. I’m certain that they never wore pants, and I always felt I towered over Marjory and Marie.

Mike: Before we get to hear more about the Furman sisters, I’m going to talk about some little known, but strong women that Brenda suggested I preach about. Each of these women took courageous risks even though they were a part of oppressively patriarchal cultures.

The first one I’ll highlight is Deborah. She lived during the time period in Israel’s history they called the Judges. This was after the initial conquest of Israel by the Jewish people following Moses and Joshua.

 The indigenous Canaanites were fighting the Jewish people for control of this land. The Canaanite King Jabin and his military commander Sisera were successful for twenty years in dominating militarily. They ruled over both the immigrant Jewish people and the indigenous Canaanites who lived there.

Finally, Deborah had had enough. Deborah was considered both a prophet and a judge who would help settle the legal cases for many of the Jewish people in the area.  

Deborah sensed God calling her to strong female leadership in this male dominated world. She heard God telling her to encourage the Jewish people to rise up against the Canaanites.

Deborah told the Jewish military leader Bei’rak to come to her meeting place. She told him to gather an army to defeat the Canaanites. Ba’rak said, “I’ll only do it if you help me lead.” So, that’s what she did.

 Deborah stepped up and helped lead the Israelite tribal militia to victory against a superior Canaanite army.  She is one of very few women leaders mentioned in the history book of the Jewish people.

Now, let’s hear about some other strong women, our foremothers, who were important in the history of this local church, the First Congregational Church of Coloma. Brenda has been doing her research and will be sharing about the Furman sisters.

Brenda: Cora Furman was the oldest of the 3.  I’m pretty sure she would have been happy living in our time.  As Ilse shared, when she was a young schoolgirl, she led a sit-down strike with 4 other girls at The Weimer Basket Factory in Coloma. All workers were offered a 10¢ an hour raise, from 50¢ to 60¢ because of the strike.  A 20% increase would be an exciting increase even today. After High School Cora began working for the Post Office and she took a second job at the State Bank of Coloma.  Most women at the time weren’t working out of the house and she was holding down two jobs. Cora worked her way up to the elected position of Cashier which would be now Bank Manager. She would travel alone to Chicago to transact business for the bank. I’m sure that she was most like the only woman doing that at the time. Cora was at the forefront of women’s rights!  She also enjoyed many hobbies including carpentry and upholstery. She wrote a great deal of poetry including the history of the church which Sherry read some of during the 170 Celebration. Cora reupholstered much of the church furniture and made the flower stands. She enjoyed telling stories. One that many heard was the girls exploits when a new outhouse was built.  They did a in-depth inspection including inside and out and down and up.  Of course, Cora was active in our church as Clerk, Financial Secretary, and Treasurer as well as Sunday school teacher and involved in other committees and groups.  I see Cora Furman as the epitome to me of a strong woman.

Mike: Now, let’s return to another woman in Scripture that you probably have never heard of: Achsah. She lived during the period of the conquest of Israel by the Jewish people before the time of the Judges and our last story of Deborah. Achsah was the daughter of Caleb. Caleb was one of Moses’ spies years before and now was a key leader. He was having problems capturing one of the cities so he decided to offer his daughter to any Jewish commander who could take the city.

Caleb’s nephew Othniel succeeded and therefore received Caleb’s daughter Achsah as his wife.  It was such an oppressive patriarchy that women were treated like property.

Achsah chooses not to act silent or passive in spite of this situation. She figures out how to get more land for her new family from her father. As the author of our book study says, “She is a woman who acts decisively, adjusting her method to the situation at hand. Achsah acquires more land from her father and gives voice to her condition in a way that is unusual and noteworthy in the patriarchal world of the Bible.”

Let’s hear more about the strong women, our foremothers of this church.


Marjory Furman was next in line. She was quiet and very patient but would eventually speak when bossed too much according to Ilse. The ladies had to work together to live in harmony.  Luckily each had strengths in certain areas.  Marjory’s was cooking and baking, her white bread was famous, and Bennet remembers her Pumpkin Chiffon Pie. She started playing for church Sunday school at 10 and was the church organist for 56 years.  She taught piano and organ to many.  When younger she often hitched up the horse and buggy and drove to her student’s home.  I know my brother Bennet walked over to her house for lessons for many years.  Did anybody else take lessons from Marjory?  When it came to remembering her church family, she never missed sending a card or making a call on birthdays and corresponded with former ministers and church members regularly.                                                         

During WWI Marjory supported the effort by playing patriotic songs on a flat bed truck to raise money for war bonds and she always called on to play for many different community functions. Her concern for social services was demonstrated during her lifetime by rolling bandages and making cancer dressings for patients in the community. She was a member of many church groups and was active and attending church at 92.

 Mike: A third, little known, but strong woman that Brenda has picked is Joanna. She is the wife of a domestic administrator in Herod’s government. Herod is the one who has John the Baptist beheaded and later wants Jesus killed. For Joanna to have anything to do with this same Jesus, must have put herself at extreme risk.

The Scripture says that Joanna travelled around with Jesus. This is surprising, not only because of what Herod might do, but also because Jewish culture forbid women from travelling with men they were not related to. On top of this, the Bible says she supported Jesus financially.

Joanna was with the Jesus followers even to the end of Jesus’ life. She is said to be one of the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning. The women discovered that Jesus’ body was gone, but none of the male disciples believed them. The men said it was all nonsense, according to the gospel of Luke.

Joanna took risks and acted with courageous strength in the face of the patriarchy that was found even within the Jesus movement.

Let’s hear from Brenda about the third of our strong foremothers.

Brenda: Marie Furman, quite a woman. After graduating from Benton Harbor’s Mercy Hospital School of Nursing she became a nursing supervisor.  With war looming she decided to serve her country.   She joined up as a registered nurse of the U. S. Army serving during WWI.  A campaign to accord the US. Military nurses rank, which coincided with the Woman’s suffrage movement, led in 1920 to US. Army and Navy nurses accorded “relative ranks” of Lieutenant, Captain, and Major.  Marie (all 4’4”) was a Lieutenant. After the war Marie worked for a doctor’s office in Lansing. She returned to Coloma and her nursing supervisor job at Mercy Hospital. She spent many years as Coloma School’s nurse.  I remember getting my TB poke from her as I’m sure others do also.  I think those who were teachers remember her checking for lice.

Marie kept the house and her sisters organized.  She was also a seamstress and sewed all the sister’s dresses (using the same patterns but sprucing them up with different details.) I bet somebody still has a picnic bag, apron, or kitchen towel that Marie worked on.

Marie, just like her big sister Cora, held many leadership positions in our church. She was Clerk for many decades. She attended and took very neat and precise notes at every Trustee and Council meeting until the last two years of her life. She rarely missed attending church as she took worship attendance and counted the Sunday offering. These strong and faithful women are a large part of why we didn’t have any precautions in place for keeping watch over our money!  Marie belong to Women’s Fellowship and other groups.  She started the Mitten Tree for children in need.  Marie had a special relationship with children who would surround her at the end of a church service.

Marie also was active with the local Red Cross and Berrien County Cancer Services.  She was honored with the Community Hospital’s Tri-County Maxine Brule Award in 1982. Marjory and Marie were given the Berrien County Council for Churches’ Outstanding Christian Service Award.

Marie may have been small in stature, but her influence on me and our congregation and the community was immense.

As a result of these strong women, the church was able to finish and furnish the Furman Room.  They lent the church the money to complete the building project and gave $1,000. to buy the furnishings, that’s about $12,500. today.  These ladies lived simply but were a force to be reckoned with. I would also like to thank Ilse, another strong woman in my life for her help with information about the Furman sisters.

I’m strong women when an emergency comes up.  I was at the bank in Decatur when the woman in front of me collapsed back into me.  She was breathing but unconscious.  I stayed with her and when help got there, she took a turn for the worse.  They put me to work bagging her, they were able to get her stabilized and she was taken to the hospital.  When Joyce Morlock fell down the last section of the stairs here at church, I made sure we got the ambulance called and got her comfortable till they got here. 

I’m fortunate to know or have known many strong women.  Their impact on me is unmeasurable and I’m fortunate that they have touched my life. All the women of our church our strong and share their unique qualities with all of us.

Mike: Thank you for Brenda for doing the research and sharing with us about the Furman sisters, our foremothers, the strong women who were important to this church. Thank you for being yourself one of the strong women who are pillars of our church today. Thanks for leading our choir.

My prayer is that we continue to carry on the rich heritage of the Furman sisters. God help us be about God’s work of bringing God’s kindom to earth like Cora, Marjorie and Marie. God help us be about God’s work of courage and risk taking like Deborah, Achsah, and Joanna.

As we’ll sing at the end of our service: Go, make a difference…

Usually, we have special music at this point in our worship, but since our choir is going to sing and Brenda is our choir director, we are going to move to our Prayer Time and then have special music after that. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *