I think about this connection often, and usually on Sundays, because what brings these events to mind is a lovely stained glass window that now lights the apse of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Much has been said and written about how St. Paul's acquired and moved into town the building that had originally been home to Chester Congregational Church. It is a wonderful story, and, as a parishioner of St. Paul's myself, I admit that I treasure the building and am pleased at its successful reinvention as an Episcopal church. Less well-known, however, is the stained glass window in the apse which also made the journey from Chester into Grinnell. That window, depicting "The Good Shepherd" and celebrating the fourteen-year ministry of the Rev. George H. White at Chester, connects Grinnell to the gruesome events of 1915 Turkey. Of course, there is a certain irony in the iconography: if only there had been a shepherd like that who had intervened to save all those sheep subjected to the terror of the genocide.
|"The Good Shepherd," Apse Window, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Grinnell, IA|
|Chester Congregational Church, ca. 1900|
But the connection to Turkey still burned warmly in his heart, and therefore in 1890 the young George White, his wife, and their infant daughter left for Turkey as missionaries of the American Board of Foreign Missions—as his parents had done more than thirty years earlier. The Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had only recently (1886) founded a college in Merzifon (Marsovan), north-central Anatolia, and it was to this site that the Whites were sent after an emotional and warm farewell at Grinnell's old Stone Church.
|Anatolia College, Merzifon , Turkey, ca. 1900|
|Grinnell Herald, September 3, 1912, p. 2|
|White Memorial Windows, St. Paul's Episcopal Church (photo 2015)|
Anatolia College was, of course, a Christian outpost in a largely Muslim world. Merzifon itself was then inhabited by a large number of Greek and Armenian Christians, and this population constituted the primary constituency for the college. Therefore, when inflamed Turkish nationalism turned on the Armenians and other subject nationalities, the College was bound to collide with this new power.
|The New York Times, September 30, 1917|
Experts estimate that at least 600,000 Armenians—and perhaps twice that number—perished in the frenzy, and many more suffered through the forced-march deportations into the Syrian desert. Numerous witnesses described how the Turks prepared trenches toward which they marched male Armenian captives. There the captives were set upon, sometimes with axes, their bodies falling into the trenches prepared for them—in this detail eerily anticipating practices refined in later genocides of the twentieth century.
As I sit in the quiet of St. Paul's and gaze at the window of "The Good Shepherd," I cannot escape the irony of the iconography. Of course, George and Susan White, in selecting the theme of the stained glass window, could not have foreseen the terror that the Turks would later unleash against their Armenian subjects. No doubt the White children had in mind the faithful shepherd that their father had been to the women and men of Chester township. But in retrospect it is difficult not to wonder why there was no Good Shepherd for the hundreds of thousands of Armenians and others who perished in the cataclysm of 1915.
George White returned to Merzifon in 1919 and revived Anatolia College, but by 1921 new difficulties had arisen, and the college closed once again. In 1924, largely through White's personal endeavors and against the judgment of Mission Board Commissioners, Anatolia reopened, this time in Thessaloniki, Greece, where White completed his service as President of the College in 1934. He retired to the United States, and died in California in 1946. His body was transported back to Grinnell where he was buried near his parents, and where his wife's body joined him a few years later. The man who had survived the 1882 Grinnell Cyclone and who had witnessed the storm of the Armenian Genocide lay at final rest in the peaceful environs of Hazelwood Cemetery.