Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad

Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey 1908-1923 tells the remarkable story of the missionaries and humanitarian workers of the Talas station, who saved 10,000 orphans in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Their gentility, courage, pluck and determination shone through the “madness” inflicted on Ottoman citizens following the Young Turk revolution of 1908. In 14 short years, the madness included:

  • 2 coups d’état
  • 4 regional wars
  • 3 genocides
  • 1 world war
  • 1 war of independence

By December 1922, when all Christians were ordered out of the new Republic of Turkey, everyone was exhausted. But the seeds of a new generation were saved.

13 Humanitarian Workers, Talas, Turkey in the Ottoman Empire, circa 1920.

Humanitarian Workers, Talas, Turkey c1920.

The story follows the 10 core and 22 transient personnel of the Talas station in the Cesarea (present-day Kayseri) region of Turkey from 1908 to 1923. Susan Wealthy Orvis was a missionary-teacher employed by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and its sister organization, Woman’s Board of Missions of the Interior. She left Iowa for Talas in 1902 to work at the Girls’ Boarding School. Its principal, Stella Loughridge, had travelled there from Nebraska the year before. For six years they and their team lived and worked under difficult circumstances during the reign of the “Red Sultan”, Abdul Hamid II (“red” because of the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in 1894-96). When the Young Turks came to power in 1908 to restore the democratic constitution that the Sultan had dismissed 30 years before, hope spread quickly throughout the Ottoman Empire. Sadly, it was short-lived; the Young Turks’ regime was far, far worse.

Under the fog of World War I, there were three genocides: Armenian, Assyrian, and Pontic Greek. Those who could, fled to Russia (now Armenia and Georgia), to Beirut, Lebanon, and to Port Said, Egypt. Millions of dollars were raised to support refugee camps in those areas. It was the largest humanitarian effort in the world to that date. The Ottomans refused to allow any humanitarian (relief) workers into the Empire until late 1917-early 1918, which caused tremendous hardship, death and starvation for the refugees in Aleppo. After WWI, after the Young Turk despots fled, workers for the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (later known as Near East Relief) were allowed to enter Turkey. The conditions they found were almost unbelievable. What they did to provide relief and how they saved hundreds of thousands of lives is the crux of Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad.

Thanks to access to the personal letters and private documents of Susan Wealthy Orvis, and excerpts of letters from the other missionaries and relief workers, I am piecing together the richly detailed story of a relatively untold American and Canadian humanitarian effort.

Why will this book be relevant for a contemporary audience? Every chapter eerily echoes current events in Turkey, Syria and elsewhere. If we pay attention and take positive action, perhaps we can prevent another genocide . . . or two.

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Stella Loughridge is on the left. Susan Wealthy Orvis is beside her. If you can identify the others, please contact me. (See Amerikan Bord Heyeti on my home page for the photo credit).