In the Footsteps of a Saint: Life at Corinth Orphanage

It was a paradisiacal setting with very real dangers. Learn how the orphans of Corinth overcame the odds — with the help of two incredible women.

A NATION'S GENEROSITY

When Near East Relief worker Emma Cushman came to Corinth, Greece, in June 1923, she brought a few friends: 2,700 friends, to be specific.

Cushman’s young charges were evacuees from various Near East Relief orphanages in the Turkish interior. Cushman had managed the orphanage at Konia. In the face of shifting hostilities in Anatolia, Greece had opened its doors to 17,000 Near East Relief orphans in 1922. The country also accepted tens of thousands of refugees. Greece’s incredible generosity toward orphans and refugees was essential to Near East Relief’s life-saving work. This also marked the beginning of a long and meaningful collaboration between the Near East Foundation and the Greek government.

The Greek government not only granted Near East Relief the right to set up orphanages — it also collaborated with Near East Relief leadership to choose the best possible sites for raising and educating the children. Some locations were chosen out of convenience. For example, the enormous Zappeion Exhibition Hall in Athens was selected for its size, while the farm school at Oropos was easily converted to an orphanage focused on agricultural training.

 

A Spiritual Home

Corinth offered practical benefits and spiritual significance for the Near East Relief leaders. Like Alexandropol (now Gyumri), Armenia, Corinth had an under-used military base that could be adapted for orphanage use with relative ease. Corinth’s small port and relative proximity to Athens would help with orphan transport. Corinth is located about 2 miles northeast of ancient Corinth, a thriving metropolis of 90,000 people. According to the Christian Bible, the Apostle Paul founded the Christian church in Corinth. Saint Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are part of the New Testament.

The ancient city was leveled by a devastating earthquake in 1858. A new town soon took shape on the sunny shores of the Gulf of Corinth.

The “new Corinth” of 1923 was a far cry from the bustling city of Classical times. Emma Cushman found herself in a sleepy coastal town with 6,000 residents, nearly all of whom were completely debilitated by malaria. Half of Cushman’s 2,700 young charges were ill by the time they arrived in Corinth. In addition to malaria acquired during the evacuation from Anatolia, many of the children were also suffering from tuberculosis and favus. Malaria had taken hold in Corinth’s refugee community, which was home to almost 400 Armenian and Greek families that had fled Turkey.

 

FIGHTING MALARIA IN CORINTH

Emma Cushman was a trained nurse, but the Corinthian malaria epidemic was more than she and her colleagues could handle. The orphanage staff consisted of Cushman, one American doctor, three Greek doctors, three American nurses, and 20 Greek nurses. The staff was plagued by malaria, and many left the area out of concern for their own deteriorating health. The future of the Corinth Orphanage did not look promising.

Help arrived in the form of Alice Carr, an American Red Cross nurse who had served throughout Europe. She joined Near East Relief in Greece in 1923.

Alice Carr created an ambitious anti-malaria plan that would benefit both the orphanage and the surrounding community. She traced the malaria epidemic to the local swamps, where standing water served as a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Carr enlisted the help of 92 older orphans to drain the swamps. The orphans were soon joined by two squadrons of soldiers on loan from the Greek military. Together, they dug 100 miles of drainage ditches to dry out the dangerous marshes.

 

Left: Nurse Alice Carr worked with Near East Relief and the Near East Foundation from 1923 to 1948.

A HEALTHY LIFE FOR ALL

When that project was complete, Carr personally inspected every backyard, marsh, and irrigation ditch within a three-mile radius of the orphanage. Carr’s staff of sanitation workers visited 300 homes per day. They encouraged farmers to cover irrigation ditches and eliminate standing water. Carr also opened a clinic to care for locals suffering from malaria. Near East Relief administered 5,000 doses of quinine to orphans and refugees per day. Within a year, Alice Carr had eradicated malaria in the orphanage and the surrounding community. 

The governor of the province could not help but be impressed. In 1925 the local government asked Alice Carr to frame anti-malaria laws, which were quickly enacted.

In 1924, the Corinth Orphanage opened a specialized hospital for Near East Relief orphans with tuberculosis. The hospital followed the sanatorium model, which emphasized fresh air, sunshine, and nutritious food. The hospital building was only used in severe weather. The patients spent all of their time outdoors as a part of the “sun bath” treatment.  Instead of the usual orphanage uniform, the sick children wore loincloths to take advantage of the sun. They even slept in outdoor pavilions.

The young tuberculosis patients had a recreation yard of their own. They were also encouraged to work in the garden and play games, in addition to the more sedate pursuits of reading and basket weaving.

In 1928, a series of earthquakes struck Corinth. Twenty Boy Scouts from the orphanage acted as first responders. They spent 22 days in the heavily damaged city. The boys searched for survivors, distributed supplies, and constructed temporary shelters.

By 1930, the Corinth Orphanage had closed. Both Alice Carr and Emma Cushman remained in Greece, their adopted homeland. Alice Carr became the Near East Foundation’s Director of Public Health in Greece. Emma Cushman retired to a small farm outside of Corinth. In 1931, she made a visit to Cairo, Egypt to visit some of her former orphans. While there, Cushman experienced a recurrence of malaria. Emma Cushman died in Egypt and was buried there, attended by just a few of the girls she raised from childhood to young adulthood.