Almost from day one of Project SAVE’s photograph-collecting efforts, our Photo Donors have provided us with images of missionaries or ones taken by them. Most often these missionaries were Protestant but there were also French Catholic priests who opened schools for Armenian children. Among the Protestants, there were American and Northern European missionaries, all well educated, many as teachers, medical professionals, and preachers. The Americans were often recent graduates of Ivy League schools like Mt Holyoke College, Princeton and Harvard universities, and Connecticut College for Women. For service-minded people, missionary work in the Ottoman Empire was the experience to have right out of college—like our Peace Corps is today.
A decade or so into Project SAVE’s organizational life, the children and nieces and nephews of these missionaries came to us, wanting to preserve their relatives’ legacy of helping people. And they specifically came to Project SAVE because we served the Armenian community. Knowing the background of the Ottoman Empire where their relatives had served, they wanted their photographs to be known and preserved by Armenian people, and used for historical, scholarly purposes.
It was gratifying to listen to that first generation removed from the missionaries explaining what they had accomplished among the Armenian people. It opened up a whole new world of information and knowledge for us. I was grateful that these relatives were so respectful not only of their relative’s work, but also of preserving the visual memory of their noble actions, miles as they were from home, where multiple languages were spoken—not much English—in a land fraught with danger.
These missionaries voluntarily walked into what was becoming hell on earth. They were there, and they stayed there, often newly married, often intermarried with other missionary families, raising their children in this foreign setting, strongly interconnected with each other. An example of this is the Bliss family with the Dale family—“Dale” later became the first name for one of their daughters who came to Project SAVE with photographs to preserve.
Missionaries traveled the countryside with their cameras to meet the people and consider their needs. Yes, the missionaries did cause controversy by introducing Protestantism to the Gregorian Apostolic Armenian people, and attracting them to attend their churches with the special offer of education for the children. Then, as new needs appeared, the missionaries set up clinics, hospitals, and orphanages—many of whose orphans later entrusted Project SAVE with the photographs gifted to them by their missionary caretakers. During the Genocide years (1915-1923), the missionaries provided safe haven for Armenians fleeing the destruction of their families and homes. Missionaries, both men and women, literally stood in the doorways of their safe havens, defying Turks to enter and do harm. During this time, missionaries, at the risk of their own lives, organized evacuation routes for Armenians.
Many missionary families were affiliated with the Syrian Protestant College, which later became American University of Beirut. In 1909, the college organized the Beirut Relief Expedition to Adana, where Armenians were being slaughtered. Missionaries collaborated with the American Red Cross to bring aid to Armenians, many of whom found safety on the missionary campus of St Paul’s Institute in Tarsus. Missionaries had their feet on the ground and communicated to the world the desperate situation in which Armenians found themselves, living in their own homeland under the brutal rule of the Ottoman Empire.
Now, 100-years-plus later, Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives is able to share these images with the world to fulfill the wishes of missionary families, visit our Online Collections Database and please share to help us spread the word!