Wednesday, 19 December 2012

With the Saints through Advent (20): 19 December, Lillian Trasher

Lillian Trasher with children at her orphanage in Egypt

Patrick Comerford

With less than a week to go to Christmas Day, Lillian Trasher, who is honoured on this day [19 December] in the calendar of the Episcopal Church is appropriate figure to remember for many reasons, including:

● She is an ecumenical missionary figure who brings together Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Quaker and Pentecostal threads in her life.

● She was a pioneer in women’s ministry, having been ordained 100 years ago in 1912.

● She is a reminder at this Christmas-time that the Christ Child spent his first years as a vulnerable refugee in Egypt.

Lillian Hunt Trasher (1887-1961), who is still known as the “Nile Mother” of Egypt, was one of the most famous missionaries of the 20th century. She was a missionary in Asyut and the founder of the first orphanage in Egypt.

Lillian Trasher was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on 27 September 1887. Her mother was originally a Quaker from Boston, but Lillian was raised as a Roman Catholic in Brunswick, Georgia.

When she was still a teenager and taking part in Bible studies in a friend’s house, she decided to make a personal commitment of her life to Christ.

She attended God’s Bible School in Cincinnati, Ohio, for one term, and then worked at an orphanage in North Carolina. She later said that at a second Bible school, Altamont Bible and Missionary Institute, in Greenville, South Carolina, she experienced “the infilling of the Holy Spirit.”

After a short time as the pastor of a Pentecostal church, she travelled with an evangelist, and then returned to work again at the orphanage.

She was engaged to the Revd Tom Jordan and they were ten days away from marrying in 1910 when she heard a missionary from India speaking at a meeting. She immediately broke off their engagement because she felt called to Africa but he did not.

Not knowing where she would go, she opened her Bible and read: “I have seen, I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning and am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send thee to Egypt” (Acts 7: 34).

Defying her family’s wishes, she sailed to Africa. She arrived in Alexandria with less than $100 in her pocket. Her sister Jenny was with her, and the two continued to work together for decades.

A few months after her arrival in Egypt, while Lillian was staying at a mission house in Asyut, 230 miles south of Cairo, a man came to the house with news of a dying woman nearby. Lillian and Sela, an older woman, went to see the woman who died soon after. A translator told Lillian the child’s grandmother was planning to throw the baby into the Nile.

Lillian took the baby girl, and named her Fareida. She rented a small house and some furniture and nursed the child back to health. And so she began her work among orphans.

In 1912, the Church of God of Cleveland, Tennessee, ordained her. By 1918, her orphanage family had grown to 50 children and eight widows.

On 27 March 1919, the British Administration ordered Lillian to leave Egypt. Back in the US, she joined the Assemblies of God, which continued to support her work for the rest of her life.

Lillian Trasher returned to Egypt in 1920, and she continued to work there until 1961 without a break. She once told this story:

My work reminds me of the fable of a little boy who was crossing the desert alone. He became very thirsty so he was obliged to dig in the ground with bleeding fingers until he came to water. He drank and went on his weary way.

Each time he became thirsty he dug holes and his hands became more torn and bleeding. At last he reached the other side, exhausted and fainting, his clothes hanging in dusty rags.

Some months later he looked across the desert and saw a happy little boy coming with his hands full of fresh flowers. The child was coming the very same way he had travelled. He looked at the strange sight in perfect amazement. When the little boy arrived, he asked him how it could be that he had crossed the awful desert and looked so fresh and cool. The child answered, saying, “Oh, the way is beautiful. There are many small wells out of which spring lovely cool water, and around each of these wells there are flowers and shady bushes and soft green grass. I had no trouble at all in crossing.”

The first boy looked down at his own scarred fingers and knew that it was his suffering which had made the desert bloom and had made the way easy for other little boys to cross. But no one would ever know to thank him or to ask who had dug the wells. But, he knew, and was satisfied.

By the time she died on 17 December 1961, the Lillian Trasher Orphanage was supporting 1,200 children. She had cared for nearly 25,000 Egyptian children in all, and her orphanage continues its work to this day.

Although Lillian Trasher died on 17 December, she is honoured with a feast day on 19 December in the calendar of the Episcopal Church.


God, whose everlasting arms support the universe: We thank you for moving the heart of Lillian Trasher to heroic hospitality on behalf of orphaned children in great need, and we pray that we also may find our hearts awakened and our compassion stirred to care for your little ones, through the example of our Saviour Jesus Christ and by the energy of your Holy Spirit, who broods over the world like a mother over her children; for they live and reign with you, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Genesis 21: 8-21; Psalm 10: 12-19; II Corinthians 1: 3-7; Luke 17: 1-6.

Tomorrow (20 December): Saint Ignatius of Antioch.

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.