The Nile Mother: Lillian Trasher

Women’s History Month: March
Female Missionaries

“Do not the successes which have crowned some missionary exertions seem like the dawn of morning on the East? Oh, that this region of Egyptian darkness may ere long participate in the vivifying beams of light!” ~Adoniram Judson

Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) died when Queen Victoria was still young and bearing children. Such a little prayer he expressed in those few short words so long ago, but God was listening. Not too many decades after Judson passed on, God was providentially making a way to send a young lady to that “region of Egyptian darkness” to help bring the “vivifying beams of light.”

Lillian Hunt Trasher (1887-1961) was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on 27 September, coincidentally, the birthday of George Müller, who was known for his faith as Trasher would one day be known. She was reared Catholic, in Brunswick, Georgia, and, with her family, moved to Asheville, North Carolina, by which time she was a born-again Protestant. An artist by aptitude, at the age of seventeen (1905), Lillian was contemplating working on a newspaper, and was en route to Atlanta, when she chanced to meet a stranger, Mattie Perry, on the train. Mattie asked Lillian if she’d ever noticed how circumstances, those little coincidences in our lives, were Providential? God showing us the way (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28)? Mattie, who ran a Faith Orphanage in Marion, North Carolina, told Lillian that if things did not work out in Atlanta, she could come work for her. No pay. But at least she’d have room and board.

Sure enough, through a series of puzzling misadventures, things fell through in Atlanta. The newspaper editor apologized, but Lillian said not to worry, she was going to have a great life. She took her sketches (portfolio) and left. A week later she was in Marion, North Carolina, with Mattie Perry. The following spring (1906) Mattie’s brother and his wife, on a preaching tour, visited the orphanage; for five years Lillian divided her time between working with them in full-time ministry, attending Bible college, and working at the orphanage with Mattie, all of which provided training for the lifework soon to fall into her hands.

Feeling a call to Africa as a missionary, Lillian purposed to go to a Holiness Conference in Pittsburgh and toward that end saved up $18, which someone found, and assuming it was orphanage money, used it to buy groceries. When the error was discovered, friends pooled together $10, which would take her only as far as DC. Mattie said if she came into some money, she’d reimburse Lillian. Assuming this must be the Lord’s will, Lillian left and went to an address she’d been given as the home of a friend. The lady of the house, Mrs Olivier, answered the door, said she was sorry, but her home was occupied. She had houseguests from Egypt, but Lillian could stay for lunch. Mr and Mrs Brelsford, who had a mission house in Assiout, 200 miles south of Cairo, drilled Lillian about her plans. When they learned she had no appointment, no support, no mission board, no financial or family backing, no language skills, no direction, not even membership in a local church, and only $1 to her name, they boldly told her she was on a fool’s errand! She should go home to Mama! The room went silent.

Another missionary in Mrs Olivier’s home, Mattie Rast, told Lillian she could have her room: she would stay somewhere else tonight. The next morning Brelsford apologized, said he’d been rash, that obviously Lillian was walking by faith, and that if she came to Egypt, she could work with them. No pay. But at least she’d have room and board. That day Lillian received $18 from Mattie Perry and took the train to Pittsburgh with Brelsford. It was a wonderful conference, then he was off on a deputation tour, but was short of funds. Lillian gave him some of hers. She had planned to go to New York, now she could go only as far as Harrisburg. By chance, though she’d never expected to use it, she had on her person the address of the friend of a friend in Harrisburg, if she needed help. She went to their house and stayed overnight, then went to the train station, where the man of the house was obliged to buy her ticket. “I can get you to New York,” he told her, “but how do you expect to get to Egypt?”

“If God wants me there, God will get me there.”

By the time she reached New York (July 1910), 22-year-old Lillian was exhausted. She spoke at Glad Tidings on Mission Sunday. With that offering and other speaking engagements, by August she had $40. She went to a travel agency and made a down payment on an 8 October ticket to Egypt. Two days before the ship was to sail she was still short $60. What was she to do? What was God to do?

A stranger knocked at her door, asked her about her faith and her call, then knelt, prayed, and thanked God for supplying all Lillian’s needs. On her way out the door, the woman reached in her purse, took out a wad, and handed it to Lillian. After the woman left, Lillian unfolded it. It was exactly $60. Lillian ran out to thank the woman, but she had disappeared.

Next night at church the offering was $50. On her way out, someone pressed another $20 in her hand. She had left North Carolina with $1 in cash; now three months later, she was on her way to Egypt with $70. Churchpeople came to the pier to see her off. Before the ship sailed, someone suggested she open her Bible at random and see if the Lord had a word for her. She read: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry … for I know their sorrows; And I am come down to deliver them … behold, the cry of the children … is come unto me … Come now therefore, and I will send thee … [to] Egypt” (Exodus 3:7-10).

The ship made Alexandria by November 1910. Brelsford had sent a native to bring Lillian the other 300 miles south to Assiout, a beautiful agricultural city on the Nile and for centuries the home of Coptic Christians. Brelsford’s mission house was the hub for Holiness missionaries in the area.

In February 1911 a knock on the mission door brought the first orphan, a scrawny, dying female infant, whom Lillian named Fareida. Quickly the women around Lillian cleaned and fed the infant, found rags for diapers, tore a sheet, cut out a pattern, and sewed garments. After ten days of hearing a baby cry and getting no sleep, however, Brelsford was distraught. There was no way the mission house could be turned into a nursery! He told Lillian to take the child back where it came from. Where? The mother was dead. The family had abandoned her. Was Lillian to throw her in the Nile?

“Isn’t there an orphanage where we could take her?”

“There is not one orphanage in all of Egypt.”

“Just think how many children would be clamoring to get in if there were one!”

She could not challenge Brelsford in his own house. Not thinking of the long-term consequences, Lillian ran into the street, found a three-story house, with a view of the Nile, for rent at £2 a month, bought a table and chairs, stove, and blankets, cleaned, then went back for the child. Brelsford tried to stop her. “Why risk everything for a sickly baby?”

“The Lord is with us, and He will not allow any harm to come to us.”

That night she slept in her own place, but within days her funds were exhausted. She went to the uppermost room and prayed. Then it came to her: I have been sent to Egypt to found a Christian orphanage. “Now I will see God in action.”

A poor Muslim boy came to the door to ask if she was the lady who had started an orphanage and planned to look after hundreds of children. He gave her seven piasters: enough for two days’ worth of food. A Bible verse sprang to mind: “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10 NLT). Soon word spread, and small amounts of food and money began to appear on her doorstep. Egyptian law forbade foreigners to adopt children, but she could care for them. Two months later, two more children. July brought a boy with bubonic plague. Then three children with measles. Even Lillian came down with bubonic plague. When rest was mandated, Arab neighbors gave her money for a two-week vacation in Alexandria on the Mediterranean with Fareida. They would help with the children. When she returned, everything was in order; there was even food in the pantry.

People understood compassion. Fellahin, poor farmers in the hinterland, helped with food though Lillian had to ride out to get it. By 1914 she had eight children and needed a bigger place. For their education her artistic skills came in handy: she wrote and illustrated her own textbooks. By August the world was at war and vying for the Suez Canal. In July 1915 a government clerk shared with her that there was land across the Nile for £50. She had no money. “Go tell the man I will buy the property … I’ll have the money a week from today.” Then she prayed. Show me the way, Lord. Days earlier a wealthy businessman had left his card: “Contact me if there is anything I can do.” When she made the need known, he gave her £50.

With a few piasters, she bought some forms to make brick. In September she and the children began making their own bricks. Again her artistic skills came in handy: she drew her own blueprints. Summer temps were as high as 120°; walls needed to be two feet thick to keep out the heat. The bedrooms needed to hold four beds. The adult brickmason said the children’s bricks were good for the walls, but the foundation bricks had to be factory made. It would cost £3. She had no money, but she ordered them. Lord, please show me how You want to pay for them. On her rounds, in the flood season, under the most adverse conditions and risk of life, she went out of her way to visit the poorest village; the poorest of the poor gave her £5.

Then the unthinkable happened. The man who had knocked on the mission house door February 1911—the father—returned for Fareida. He had papers with an official stamp. What could Lillian do? He grabbed the child, who was screaming, “Mama, Mama, don’t let him take me away.” Lillian was crushed. Later, they learned, the child died.

By Christmas 1916 the new orphanage across the river was complete. The boys had made the bricks, the girls had helped with mortar. In February 1917 a poor woman with four children stood at the gate. It was one thing to take in orphans; another, to take in indigents. But Lillian could not turn them away. The woman could work for her room and board. Lillian saw she also needed a dorm for widows. By New Years 1918 the orphanage had fifty children and eight widows. Lillian, twenty-nine years old, wrote out guidelines, some of which were that she would not deny the needy, but she would not accept persons who had other means of support; that relatives must sign the children over to the orphanage, where they would receive an education, religious instruction, room and board; that this was a faith venture, dependent on God’s supply.

After the war, Egypt found itself under British occupation. All Englishmen had “diplomatic immunity,” meaning they could oppress native citizens without danger of prosecution. The people rebelled, turning Egypt into a powder keg. When the fighting reached Assiout, Lillian and her band were forced out of their orphanage into an abandoned kiln. To the huddled children she read Psalm 91. “If you make the Lord your refuge, if you make the Most High your shelter, no evil will conquer you; no plague will come near your home. For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go” (91:9-11 NLT). They emerged to find Assiout a wasteland, with billows of smoke rising. Marauders had burned and destroyed; farms were decimated. Yet, inside their compound, the bullet-riddled orphanage’s supply of food and clothes was untouched; and 107 orphans, unharmed. Sensing the worst was over, they decided to spend the night in their own beds. Early evening a knock came to the door. Armed Egyptians. Lillian screamed. Then a man stepped forward. One of her farmer friends who had lost so much. “Let her alone,” he said. The Egyptian rebels left.

The next morning British soldiers came. All noncitizens had to leave the country. She was being deported. “Over one hundred Egyptian children call me Mama. I am not a foreigner.” They insisted. Her assistants could run the orphanage in her absence. When she returned Stateside (1919) and saw the prayer and financial support to be found in the Assemblies of God, she joined the new denomination. Her deputation tour brought in hundreds of dollars. She sent funds to the orphanage and also opened a savings account for later. She returned the following year (1920) with barrels of clothes and blankets and built another dorm. The next year (1921) a sultan visited her 150 orphans; with his £1,500 she built a vocational building for the boys.

By 1924 she had 300 children; her household budget was $1,000 a month. Her land was exhausted; she needed more buildings. Sympathetic locals gave her £2,600. She purchased two and one-half acres of land. Each year costs were rising, needs were rising, and the number of children was increasing. Her usual method was to go into the hinterland for local produce and offerings, but, only thirty-seven years old, she was tired. “I cannot do this anymore, Lord. I’ll take care of the children. You provide the money … Lord, will You please send £75 today … [so I’ll] know that You have heard my cry.” Back at the orphanage she learned she had missed a visitor. He’d left £200.

In the mid-1920s Lillian came into the happy acquaintance of Lady Inskip of Scotland, daughter of Lord Maclay. Lord Maclay visited the orphanage, was much impressed, and gave Lillian £20. From Cairo he sent £100. A group of Egyptians bought her an automobile; she learned to drive. By now she was housing over 500 orphans and widows.

One day a poor housewife, with three children, whose husband was unemployed, showed up on her doorstep. Lillian gave the woman £5, food (twelve loaves of bread, rice, sugar, tomatoes, potatoes, meat, butter), and soap, then drove her home. On her way back, Lillian stopped at the grocery store. The owner showered her with rice, sugar, and one hundred pounds of soap. “I don’t need soap.”

“Take it. It is my gift.”

Then a friend from Assiout came. He gave her £50. She had given the housewife £5; God had repaid her tenfold.

Another day wealthy tourists paraded through the orphanage sightseeing. Lillian was secretly hoping they would contribute. Meanwhile a poor man stood outside the gate. Probably wanting a handout. She’d see to him later. The tourists gave a total £13. Disappointed, Lillian opened the gate to the old man and offered him tea. He handed her a crumpled bill. “For your orphanage.” It was a banknote for £50. Almost four times what all those idle, wealthy tourists gave!

Another blessing came in a spiritual outpouring (1927) with “one of the most wonderful revivals I have ever seen in my life,” Lillian wrote to the Assemblies of God. “The power of God is sweeping the orphanage like a mighty flood, like a terrific fire … hundreds of children are on their faces screaming out to God for mercy, some shouting for joy and rejoicing in the marvelous newfound blessing.” It was five days of almost uninterrupted prayer, repentance, forgiveness, and love. Afterward the children went out preaching to villagers. Many were saved.

As the Great Depression hit and deepened, supplies from the US dwindled. In 1927, they’d received $25,000; in 1933, $15,000. But Heaven supplied. One time when mattresses were threadbare and the children were almost sleeping on springs, with no cotton for batting, a truck pulled up with $50 worth of cotton, a gift to the orphanage. When they were out of soap and rice, a car pulled up with tins of butter and cheese, large sacks of soap and rice, and boxes of sugar, the legacy of a dead woman who wanted her pantry goods given to the orphanage.

Beyond the everyday needs of the household, Lillian was troubled by rumors. In Port Said, at a Swedish orphanage, when a girl had been disciplined, she’d run away and told authorities she’d been beaten because she wouldn’t accept Christianity. Officials started on a witchhunt. Could Christians be trusted to care for Muslim children? They learned Lillian had a charity list and was contributing $1.50/month per needy family. The assumption was that this was a bribe to get them to convert to Christianity. As a consequence, all Muslim children, about one hundred, were taken from her orphanage. She and the children were devastated. For many this was the only home they’d ever known. The children cried so much for Mama, officials sent for her to calm them. But they wouldn’t return them. It was the first year the number in her orphanage declined.

Her boys were going out preaching. One wanted advice on how he could start his own orphanage and mission school. Some were evangelizing. But the loss of so many children had to have its effect. Lillian was ill two months. The orphanage fell deep in debt. Vendors refused to extend any more credit. Age forty-six, she no longer had the strength to go on. She formally announced to the remaining 650 children that she was quitting. They cried and prayed so loudly, saying, “God will supply our needs!” that she recanted. That evening they had only a little rice and a little bread. Next day’s mail brought $1,000 from the US. She went to the store and bought groceries. Even at that, it was only a few days’ luxury. Lord Maclay from Scotland sent £500. A woman from South Africa sent a half-month’s salary. A local woman gave £5. A postal clerk gave a week’s pay. Then Lord Maclay and Lady Inskip came to Cairo to see her. Thanks to Lillian’s example, he had started his own orphanage in Scotland. He gave her £5,000. Next morning he sent a telegram saying there was another £20,000 waiting for her in a bank in Assiout. Lillian still ended up in the hospital.

The money made it possible to build a small cottage for Lillian to have some space for herself; a second cottage nearby, for infants; a swimming pool for the older children; a vegetable garden…. She soon had 700 children again (1937) and feeding them was like feeding an army. A reporter, Jerome Beatty, came to the orphanage (1938) and wrote “The Nile Mother: The Story of Lillian Trasher” for American Magazine (June 1939), reprinted in Reader’s Digest (July 1939), saying, “Egypt is a land of wonder, but to me its greatest is Miss Lillian Trasher.” A Muslim official in Egypt commented: “I believe that when she dies, in spite of the fact she is a woman and a Christian, God will take her directly to paradise”.* The publicity brought in tourists and contributions. The government began to impose import duty double the value of the package, which made it necessary to say: “No more goods. Cash only.”

During World War II there was again a battle for North Africa and the Suez Canal; 200,000 Italian troops invaded Egypt (1940) through Libya. British and Americans were told to leave. Lillian refused. She had lived longer in Egypt than in America; she even thought in Arabic. The Allies turned the situation around (1941); Italians retreated to Libya. Meanwhile prices tripled, and the orphanage had 900 children. When supper was reduced to a half-cup of lentils, the household held a prayer vigil. One young girl prayed aloud, “Lord, you have said that when our fathers and mothers forsake us, You will take us up [Psalm 27:10]. We need You to provide for us right now because Mama says there is no one else who can help us.” The children prayed till the wee hours of the morning; the adults, till dawn.

Lillian, receiving a telegram from the American ambassador to Egypt, took a midnight train to Cairo and lunched with him the next day. Greece had fallen to the Germans. A Red Cross ship, loaded with supplies for Greece, was rerouted to Alexandria and was told to dump its cargo, then go back out to sea under cover of darkness. A Scot sailor, who knew of the orphanage and couldn’t see this waste, talked the captain into unloading the supplies instead of dumping them. The cargo was now waiting at a waterfront warehouse for Lillian. Crates as far as the eye could see: thousands of dresses, handmade sweaters, boys pants, blankets, towels, kegs of powdered milk, bags of rice …. and more. The ambassador would pay for delivery costs to Assiout. When the trucks rolled in, staff spent hours distributing food and clothes. When the war ended (1945), the children were still wearing Red Cross clothes.

A couple years after the war (1947)—the year Lillian turned sixty—there was a cholera epidemic, with thousands of death a week in Alexandria and Cairo. In the hinterland, thousands more. Schools closed. But since, save deliverymen and visitors, the orphanage had little contact with the outside world, Lillian thought they’d be safe. Within a month, cholera hit Assiout. That night Lillian read, “No plague will come near your home” (Psalm 91:10 NLT). She claimed it as a promise.

Three days later fire broke out in the boys dorm. Flames shot into the air, the Fire Department was called. Meanwhile the boys formed a bucket brigade—Lillian had just gotten 150 buckets from the army at bargain basement prices—and within minutes the fire was under control. Then fire jumped to the kitchen and inched up the outside brick wall. Lillian was frightened because kerosene tanks used as fuel were located behind the kitchen: there could be an explosion. She prayed, “Do something, Lord.” The fire fizzled, leaving the kitchen unscathed. The Fire Department showed up and made sure the fire was out. The ambulance came, to transport the injured. No one was injured. The marvel was that newspaper had been stuffed in the cracks around the kitchen window as insulation. If it had caught fire, it would’ve ignited the kitchen. The flame had licked right up to the newspaper and stopped. “I think we are looking at a miracle, Mama,” said one of her boys. They spent the day cleaning the rubble.

The next day a widower and two sons were standing at the gate. They had walked four days to get here. He wanted to leave the two boys with Lillian. It was too risky. They might have cholera. The orphanage was already short on beds for boys. But she couldn’t send them away. At midnight one of the two new boys had symptoms: fever, diarrhea, and vomiting. The doctor confirmed it was cholera. He died within hours. The Health Department came, fumigated, and put the white circle for cholera on the door of the orphanage. They were quarantined ten days, but no one else died.

In the ensuing years the orphanage expanded with a small hospital, a church seating 1,000, new dorms, a bigger barn, a dairy, and a bigger pool. The governor visited and was surprised. It was the “most enormous thing of this kind I have ever seen.” The prime minister of Egypt visited (1953). Afterward came a new dining room (1956), another story to the hospital, automatic washers, electricity, hot water heaters, and a new toddler nursery.

Lillian attended General Council (1960) Stateside and promoted her cause, but returned to her 1,200 children in Egypt, where she died at over seventy years of age. In accordance with Egyptian law she was buried that same day at the orphanage cemetery, with thousands of mourners. She was called “the greatest American woman living outside the US.” The Lillian Trasher Orphanage is still in operation, headed by one of her boys, supported by the Assemblies of God of Egypt, the Presbyterian churches of Egypt, and other Egyptian churches. She is honored with a feast day, 19 December, on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA). No one knows for sure, but it is speculated than over ten thousand youngsters passed through her orphanage in the fifty years she lived and worked in Egypt.

* * * * *

“The motto of every missionary, whether preacher, printer, or schoolmaster, ought to be ‘Devoted for Life.'” ~Adoniram Judson

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Pyramids of Giza

* S Sherneth, “Lillian Trasher,” The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, ed Stanley M Burgess (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 1153.

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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