Special to the Armenian Weekly
Lillian Cole, born in Tenafly, New Jersey in 1870, graduated from Mountainside Hospital Training School for Nurses in nearby Montclair in 1892. She nursed in the area for several years, but around her 30th birthday, she began to feel restless. At her “advanced age,” statistics predicted she would never marry. Surely, there was something more she could do to feel fulfilled.
When she heard that the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was recruiting single women for mission work in the Ottoman Empire, she found her calling.
In 1901, Lillian was assigned to the small hospital in Talas in the middle of the Ottoman Empire. Given the limited facilities and her struggles to learn Turkish, she found the work challenging but very rewarding. Her patients were the Armenian, Greek, and Turkish residents of Talas and area. There, she formed close friendships with the American and Canadian teachers of the mission’s boys’ and girls’ schools. She liked her work there so much that in 1904, she applied for and was granted missionary status. This entitled her to do evangelical work with her patients.
It should have been a good time for Lillian, but her missionary appointment brought to a head a simmering conflict within the station between the medical staff and the teaching staff. Though William Dodd, the doctor in charge, praised her nursing skills, he found Lillian’s religious views (and those of the teachers) lacking—which really meant they differed from his. The conflict grew, ultimately tainting the mission’s environment so badly that by 1906, Lillian resigned. “I am unwilling to be under the sole control of Dr. Dodd acting independently of the Station,” she said. While the trustees and the teachers accepted her resignation with sadness, the medical missionaries were relieved to see her go. Her departure, however, did nothing to resolve the conflict. A few years later the medical staff left, too, and the hospital temporarily close
As Christians are fond of saying, when the Lord closes a
door, He opens a window. After spending a year at home, Lillian accepted a new assignment in Sivas, 100 miles northeast of Talas. She quickly became one of its most valued workers. Within five years, she had helped build a hospital and medical clinic, and established a program to train local girls as nurses. She also defied the statistics by falling in love with the young, British-trained Armenian physician who was director of the Sivas hospital while the American doctor was on furlough. In 1912, Lillian Cole and Levon Sewny married in a grand ceremony in the mission’s compound, much to the delight of their colleagues. They spent two happy years together before the start of the Great War.
In 1914 Dr. Sewny was conscripted into the Ottoman army, and was sent to the Russian front to care for wounded and sick soldiers. That winter a typhus epidemic swept through the region between Sivas and the front. The doctor at the Red Cross hospital in Erzurum asked the medical staff in Sivas for emergency aid. Five of them, including Lillian and her colleague Mary Graffam, set off immediately to help. The deep snow and bad roads made the normal 10-day journey stretch to 21. When they finally arrived, they found the city of Erzurum “one big hospital, every available building filled with sick and wounded.” However, before they could unpack, Lillian received news that Levon was desperately ill with typhus at a village near the war zone. It took her and Mary another nine hours to get to the village, listening to the “sound of the cannon most of the way.” Two days later Levon Sewny died. “The horror and sadness of his death cannot be described,” said Mary. “It took us two days to get the rudest kind of a box, which they finally managed by breaking up a door, and then we brought the body on a horse to Erzurum.”