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Secor honors Minnie Vautrin, a Christian missionary who saved thousands in World War II China

A group of people gathers around a plaque surrounded by freshly planted flowers in the middle of a small park.
Lauren Warnecke
Residents of Secor and neighboring communities plus special guests gathered in Secor City Park to commemorate the unveiling of a historic marker honoring former resident Wilhelmina "Minnie" Vautrin.

A small crowd gathered Wednesday in the Woodford County village of Secor to unveil its first and only historic marker in a dedication honoring former resident Wilhelmina "Minnie" Vautrin.

The daughter of French immigrants, Vautrin was a Secor native and Christian missionary who spent decades in China. She attended Illinois State Normal University and taught math at LeRoy High School prior to pursing additional education at the University of Illinois. Deeply invested in her Christian faith through the Disciples of Christ Church, Vautrin joined the Foreign Christian Missionary Society to teach in China. She later became president of Ginling College, a women’s college in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing.

As part of the unveiling ceremony, the Illinois State Historical Society created a declaration that April 12, 2023, is to be hereafter known as Wilhelmina Vautrin Day statewide. A historic marker surrounded by freshly planted flowers now appears in Secor City Park, a grassy field and playground at the center of the village of 375 people. The marker and declaration, read to the group by two Secor teens, honors Vautrin’s heroic acts during the Second Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan in the Pacific theater of World War II.

During the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, Vautrin provided shelter and aid to thousands women and girls at Ginling College during and after a six-day mass murder and mass rape known as the Nanjing Massacre.

Secor mayor Robert Wilkey and representatives from the Chinese consulate were among the ceremony's distinguished speakers, joined by staff from the Illinois State Historical Society and Bill Kemp, librarian for the McLean County Museum of History. Shelley Jacobs spoke on behalf of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, which houses Vautrin’s diaries and those of other missionaries and hospital workers in Nanjing during the massacre.

“They’re too gruesome to read, to be honest with you,” Jacobs said of the diaries, “so you just can’t imagine what Minnie experienced at the time when she was sheltering these people, knowing that people were dying. When Minnie came back to the United States, she lived with the guilt of not having not being able to save more people.”

Four people remove bubble wrap from a historic marker plaque that stands in the middle of a sunny park
Lauren Warnecke
Illinois Historical Society executive director William Furry, Chinese consul general Zhao Jian, Secor mayor Robert Wilkey and two Secor teens unveil a new marker noting Minnie Vautrin's heroicism in China during World War II

Chinese Consul General Zhao Jian said that Vautrin was instrumental in sparing more than 10,000 lives.

“She took the lead in preventing atrocities of the Japanese army; demonstrating great, selfless love with kindness and fearlessness; and providing valuable assistance and support to the Chinese people in the War of Resistance against Japanese aggression,” Zhao said.

Several residents of Secor and neighboring communities El Paso and Gridley were in attendance, plus Carol Liu, a San Francisco-based filmmaker creating a feature film about Vautrin and Chinese American journalist Iris Chang. Chang documented the Nanjing Massacre in her bestselling 1997 book, “The Rape of Nankin: The Forgotted Holocaust of World War II.” Chang and Vautrin both suffered from mental illness and died by suicide.

“Both women are no longer with us and the subject matter is incredibly heavy,” Liu said. “It really does take a village to make a movie and I think that the stories of both of these women are so important. It has a lot of political implications today between the U.S., China and Japan. Hopefully we can get that film made and I can stay in touch with all of you.”

Illinois State Historical Society executive director William Furry said the historic marker could be just the beginning in bringing attention to Secor and could serve as an act of diplomacy that connects China to the central Illinois village.

“You don’t have a library in Secor but you could,” Furry said. “You don’t have a memorial other than this one to Minnie, but you could have others. You could have a museum to American and Chinese relations here in Secor. …You have a connection here in Secor to Minnie’s home in China and I hope you nurture it. I hope people come from China to see your town and celebrate the life of Minnie.”

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.