What in the world was the director of Boston's Congregational Library doing in Athens? Not only is she a busy person with plenty of responsibilities to keep her at home, but the city itself is all about pagan antiquities, sunny days, and lots of great Mediterranean food and culture — in other words, not an obvious choice for someone who spends most of her days with New England Puritans.
But there is a good reason. I traveled to Greece this past October to strengthen an old and important connection, one that very few people still remember. The tie dates back more than a century ago, when missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions traveled to Turkey to start this remarkable school. I had been invited, along with Nancy Taylor, the pastor of Boston's Old South Church, to participate in Founders' Day ceremonies at the American College of Greece. We were to tell the students something about Congregationalism and about the missionaries who had started and sustained the school through many difficult times. We each had eight minutes to work with.
It's surprising that the early history of the school is not told more often, since it is genuinely heroic. Nowadays missionaries do not have good press: we think of them as one-dimensional figures in pith helmets going out to convert the heathen, whether the heathen were interested in conversion or not. But the reality is far more interesting and complex than that simple stereotype — it deals with many unusual people quietly learning how to live between cultures and make human connections, often through times of terrific hardship and political upheaval.
The College was founded in 1875 in Smyrna, a cosmopolitan city on the Aegean coast of Turkey, by Maria West, a woman best known for an earlier book about that region of the world, The Romance of Missions. She settled in among the city's Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Jews, and wealthy American expatriates, and created a top-notch school for young women, and that in a place and time when female education was frowned upon. The model for her school and others like it was Mount Holyoke, the women's college established by Mary Lyons as a seedbed for nurturing future missionaries, combining educational rigor with deep Christian piety and social responsibility.
Minnie Mills, also working through the American Board, continued to build the school's reputation and its enrollment — but she far more than an educator or administrator. In 1922 she found herself in the midst of an enormous humanitarian crisis, with the city of Smyrna literally burning to the ground around her.
The reasons behind the catastrophe are terrifically complex, but I'll do my best with a summary: since the end of World War I and the crumbling of the old Ottoman Empire, Greeks and Turks both had had their eyes on the Levantine coast. The Greeks were hoping for a new nation that encompassed all the land around the Aegean Sea and the Turks under Mustafa Kemal hoping for one that would rival the old European powers. In 1921 long hostilities exploded into indiscriminate bloodshed, and climaxed with the sacking and destruction of Smyrna. Suddenly Minnie Mills was providing asylum for frantic victims of the massacre, and in an amazingly heroic move, she shepherded her students and many of their families to safety across the water in Athens.
No sooner had the school re-established itself in Greece than the world plunged into economic depression, war, and genocide. When school buildings were commandeered for German headquarters, and then later for wounded Greek soldiers, the students and teacher kept going by meeting in private homes.
Today the American College in Greece is one of the best schools in the country. It includes a preparatory school (Pierce College) for junior high and high school students, and a college (Deree) offering a variety of degree programs. In its third Athens location, it sits high on a hill at the north end of the city, with bright well-kept buildings with lots of glass and an amazing panorama out of every window. School president David Horner and his wife Sue, who has a Ph.D. in religious studies from Northwestern University, are both members of Boston's Old South Church. They enlisted Giles Milton, a best-selling author who had written a best-selling account of the destruction of Smyrna (I read Paradise Lost pretty much from cover to cover on my way home), to write a history that would be true to the details of the school's amazing story and its memorable past. Giles came down to Athens from his home in London to launch the book and to participate in the Founders' Day program with Nancy and me.
So there we were, two slightly jet-lagged American women in an auditorium full of fidgety junior high and high school students. But they listened respectfully, aided of course by teachers who paced the aisles ready to snap a finger at the least sign of unruliness. Who knows what students that age really hear, I wondered to myself later on that night, and what might people raised Greek Orthodox ever make of the "Congregational Way"?
We had our chance to find out the next day, when Nancy and I met with a room full of juniors and seniors, all armed with different questions for the two of us. Not surprisingly, the students wanted to know how in the world Nancy became a minister, what people thought of it, and what she actually did all day. But we also talked about digital libraries and whether people will still be reading books ten years from now. (I think yes.) We talked about reasons why it's still important to study history — I am asked this a lot wherever I go — and the gulf between American history, a scant few centuries, and the millennia of Greek antiquity. It seems almost laughable that American historians commonly specialize in one or two decades, and sometimes even complain about having to be too superficial.
The most poignant questions were more personal, about their experience of growing up in Greece during month after month of strikes and demonstrations and looming economic catastrophe. There was no mistaking the difficulty people were facing every day: I could see it out my window as dumpsters on street corners overflowed with garbage because the workers running the city dumps were on strike. Riding around Athens I saw people walking the sidewalks because all of the buses, trolleys, and trains were not running; I saw empty highways and impossibly long lines for gas, this on a rumor that the refinery workers were preparing a slowdown. It was very hard not to share in the hopelessness of the situation. No one seemed to have the will or the ability to put the country into working order, or even to stem the deterioration of civil society.
There's no good, easy answer for a seventeen-year-old facing the future. But there is always the story of the past: the motto of the American College of Greece was taken long ago from the school that produced many of its best, Wellesley College — and of course before that Jesus Christ himself. The motto is, in Latin, "not to be served, but to serve." It seems a tall order in these times, but part of the school's old and still very visible Congregational legacy.
Come back tomorrow for part 2, in which Peggy visits Anatolia College in Thessaloniki.