Armenian Bible Church            

Հայ Աստուածաշունչի Եկեղեցի

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By Thomas Cosmades


Chapter 5 


             One of the commendable missionary activities in Anatolia was the establishment of orphanages for children from Christian backgrounds.  Several organizations started orphanages that brought hope and direction to children who would have had no bright prospect for their bereft lives.  Many children reared in these institutions became useful people in their communities and elsewhere. The town of Zinjidere was also targeted for the building of an orphanage by Swiss and Swedish missionaries. Its founder was Miss Maria Anna Gerber, a determined Swiss woman. She was born in 1858, in Tramelan, in the Canton of Bern, one of twelve children in the family.  Being an ambitious girl she left her father’s farm to study nursing and midwifery.  Following her training in Switzerland she went to the United States to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.  After graduation, she joined D. L. Moody’s evangelistic team as a soloist. Some time later she heard about the oppression of the Armenians in Asia Minor and that there were orphan children everywhere.  After several waves of Armenian massacres Maria felt the compunction to assist these oppressed people in Anatolia. She persuaded another student, Miss Rose Lambert, to accompany her. They were not associated with any missionary organization; she belonged to a Mennonite denomination.   As the common saying goes, ‘They went out on faith.’

        In 1898, they disembarked at the port of Mersin.  This was three years after the first massacre of the Armenians which had been organized under the harsh rule of Emperor Abdul Hamid II. Their destination was Hajin in Cilicia. This very poor Armenian city of thirty thousand people had attracted many refugees, remnants of the 1895 massacre.  More than two thousand were widows.  Being the center of Armenian nationalism, the population had already sustained several blows and more were in the making. Maria and Rose became the Lord’s angels to thousands of bereaved and destitute people. Their hearts grieved as they were compelled to send away many widows and orphans because of lack of accommodation.  Many pled to be taken in, but there was no room for them.  Both women and children were falling dead in front of their eyes. Maria tried very hard to feed them and at the same time present to them Christ’s message of salvation and comfort.  She tried to create jobs for them.  She came to be known as the mother of many orphans.  God used Maria in a spiritual awakening in the midst of overwhelmingly grim and sad circumstances in Hajin.    In 1902 her health broke. She left the work in Rose Lambert’s hands and went to the United States to recover.

          A year later, at her return, Maria moved on to Konya (Iconium) with the intention of starting an orphanage in that large city. She gathered abandoned orphan boys who if left alone would have had very bleak futures. She placed them with Christian families who had room and paid all their expenses.  The number of orphan boys in homes quickly grew. Her application to start an orphanage in Konya was sternly rejected by Abdul Hamid’s government, a great disappointment to her. During this time, a Swiss lady sent her two Swiss francs, encouraging her to start an orphanage.  This gift she considered a sign from God to proceed elsewhere with her desire. 

            She left Konya and moved to Zinjidere, the focal point of our story.  She bought a two-acre piece of land on which she could build.  With the Lord’s guidance, she drew the plan for four buildings.  The time came to find building stone.  The locals told her that all the stone in that area was unsuitable as it was soft.  But one day as she was walking around, she saw a piece of granite on the ground.  She called one of the townsmen and asked him to dig right at that place.  To everyone’s amazement, the poor man struck a bed of granite about five feet deep! This was God’s provision. A few days later, Miss Gerber took some sticks for marking out where the walls of the first house should stand.  Poor men were employed to dig.  Amazingly, there was a straight, natural foundation where she had placed the sticks for the building!  So they had no expense for the foundation work.  She gave her heavenly Father the glory for preparing it for them.   Through this building project, ample work was provided for the unemployed in the town.  Help started pouring in from other countries.  It was after one of the waves of massacres that they started building.  This home became the refuge for hundreds of poor, where they were kept from starvation.  Zinjidere was the perfect place for an orphanage, having a vast Christian community, favorable climate, ample water, in a location removed from the brewing unrest in the country.

          She had a wide circle of Christian friends in many lands that assisted her ministry through prayer and gifts. The German Mennonites were quite well off in the then-Czarist Russia. They owned farmlands from which they realized high profits from their crops. A good portion of her needs were met by these fellow-Mennonites. Looking back on those days, we can see how radically times and conditions have changed!

          One of the persons who offered volunteer service for the building project was Hampartsum Pambukian, Haralambos’ old friend from Tarsus. A brother in Christ, Kevork Toumaian came along to assist him. Hampartsum installed all the plumbing. Others joined them in putting up the four buildings. God so provided that an unusual home for many orphan boys was built. The orphanage was happily completed in 1908 and began operating a year later after all the red tape was completed.

              Maria was a remarkable woman. She was in full charge. She looked after the spiritual ministry as well as the administrative duties — a hard task for any foreigner, but especially for a woman!    She seemed always to be able to tackle problems and cope with difficult situations with a cool head. However, the pressures finally compelled her to look for a capable director to manage the affairs of the orphanage.  At the inception of building the orphanage Haralambos was involved in securing governmental approval and when the orphanage opened, Miss Gerber asked him to become the director.  

             A woman of spiritual insight, Maria Gerber always sought single-hearted men and women who would not waver from their call. She confided to Aneta that the reason she sought her services was her conviction that Aneta would be attached to her task and not pursue marriage!  Maria was a very industrious person, a good organizer. She took in a few young girls to work for her without pay. “We’re doing everything for Jesus,” she would say.

            Along with accommodating two hundred and fifteen lively orphan boys, the well-known center in Zinjidere became a hub of spiritual activity.  Besides the actual caring for these orphans, a continuous flow of traveling evangelists passed through to preach to the boys. Rose Lambert, who in the meantime continued working in Hajin, was effective in the same way. God used these two women in two places of Asia Minor as his devoted servants.  They served thousands of bereaved and destitute people, saving many lives.

            The boys in the orphanage were Armenians and Greeks from several parts of Anatolia. Twelve male teachers and Aneta as the only woman, taught in the school. As a bashful novice she needed much training. Several widows worked in the kitchen.

            Two boys had come from the back country with no concept of what constituted good manners. Aneta was given a class where many of the boys were from the same background. Cosma, twelve years old, and Lazarus ten, were shepherds. Their language was neither Turkish nor Greek, but an incomprehensible village dialect. She tried hard to make sense out of their strange babbling!

            Day after day Aneta struggled to impart to the boys a measure of knowledge. But their insistence on speaking their unintelligible dialect made her task insurmountable. All efforts to impress on them the benefits of speaking ordinary Greek or Turkish fell on deaf ears. They reasoned with her that she should learn their language instead!

            Little progress was made. One day during class they started intonating Greek Orthodox Church chants in their dialect. The other boys laughed, but they were not dismayed. They carried on, asking Aneta to join them. When she said she was unfamiliar with these chants, they retorted, “What kind of a teacher are you with such a crying lack of knowledge?” To think that she was unaware of church chants in their beautiful language was insulting to them. “If you refuse to learn our language we will ignore your teaching,” they threatened.

            That initial year at the orphanage school was on-the-spot training. Aneta’s inefficiency as a teacher became clear as she struggled to cope with all the challenges in the classroom. She prayed for guidance. Patience toward these wounded boys became her daily aim. After all, they were entrusted to her care; they were her responsibility. So she did not give in to the temptations she was facing. When the school decided to expel Cosma for his unruly conduct, it was through her intervention that he didn’t get kicked out. In the end, both he and his friend Lazarus made good progress and were kept from returning to the mountains as illiterate shepherds.

            During this period a respectable distance was kept between the principal and Aneta. Being an eligible young man he was the object of attention of a number of girls in town. Aneta and Haralambos had had a few exchanges of letters prior to his assuming this task. Throughout her whole tenure in the orphanage they had only one private conversation. At the end of the year Aneta turned in her resignation.  She was going to start teaching at the American school. Miss Gerber was unhappy about her decision, but Aneta felt she should move on. 

            The orphanage was a great blessing to the many homeless boys, but alas, it was not going to operate for very long. In less than ten years the government took it over converting it into an army barracks. This was a crushing blow.  What happened to the orphans?  Thank God for the Near East Relief which came to Turkey at the time of the Armenian massacres.  They took care of the boys by sending them to Greece.  Aneta’s sister Elizabeth, who was a nurse, accompanied them.