After I had been in Egypt a little over three months I was asked to visit a dying woman. She had a tiny babe about three months old, and it was being fed from a tin bottle. The milk had become caked and green and stringy, yet the baby was trying to drink it. Soon the mother died and the baby was given to me. I took it home. The child had never had a bath, and its clothes were sewed on its little body. You cannot imagine the odors that came from it. The little thing would cry and cry, making it hard for the missionaries to rest at night. They begged me to take her back, but I could not do that. So I went out and rented a house for twelve dollars and a half per month, then spent my little all for a bit of furniture; and thus February 10, 1911, marked the opening of the Assiout Orphanage (Lillian Trasher, The Pentecostal Evangel).
This great action of compassion and boldness belonged to missionary Lillian Trasher. She was often regarded as the Assemblies of God’s most esteemed missionary for her lifelong service to the children of Egypt by founding the Assiout Orphanage. She possessed an uncanny ability to trust in God’s faithfulness and provision. Near the end of her adventurous life, at age seventy-four, Lillian Trasher founded and operated the largest orphanage in Egypt of the twentieth century. That starving and sickly baby, whom the twenty-three-year-old Lillian Trasher had taken from the hands of a dying mother, became the first orphan under her care. For the next fifty years, thousands more would find themselves in the arms of “Mamma Lillian.”
Lillian Hunt Trasher was born in 1887 and grew up in North Carolina and Georgia. Trasher was originally raised Catholic but came to the Holiness-Pentecostal faith through the mentorship of Bible school and orphanage founder Miss Mattie Perry. Miss Perry, a vibrant independent Holiness evangelist and activist, operated the Elhanan Orphanage in the mountains of Marion, North Carolina (Nancy Hardesty, “Mattie Elmina Perry,” South Carolina Encyclopedia). During her early adulthood Lillian served Miss Perry in the North Carolina orphanage and learned skills of caretaking, compassion, administration, and budgeting. Soon, the beautiful, young Lillian Trasher was engaged to be married to a handsome and well-respected preacher, Tom Jordan. However, though she loved Tom, Trasher painstakingly broke off the engagement because she had discerned a call from God to become a foreign missionary. Though Lillian felt crushed to lay down one dream, the joy of obedience to God gave her vision to complete a divine assignment unique to her own calling.
After discerning the call to evangelize in Africa at the age of twenty-three, Trasher left for Alexandria, Egypt, on October 8, 1910, aboard the SS Berlin set to sail from New York. Trasher stayed with a missionary couple, George and Lydia Brelsford of the Apostolic Faith Mission in Assiout (also spelled Asyut), Egypt. Within months of her arrival in Assiout, Lillian went to pray for the dying young mother, took in her first orphan, and the rest was history. Later that year, Trasher adopted four more children from destitute situations. Each year after that, her orphanage grew exponentially as locals heard of her compassion.
Lillian Trasher aimed to serve “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). Her orphanage took in abandoned children with physical disabilities and illnesses as well as vulnerable widows. By doing so, she gained the respect of the local people and word of her openness spread quickly. Many of her orphans were born as illegitimate children in an Arab society, both Coptic and Muslim, that saw family lineage as crucial for future respectability. The American reporter Jerome Beatty interviewed Trasher for The American Magazine and found:
Even the governor of Sudan heard of her and sent from far-off Khartoum a young mother and her illegitimate child, to save their lives. Both, as is the general custom, would have been poisoned or their throats cut by religious relatives, their bodies secretly burned, and, bowing to public opinion, the police would have asked no questions. Many such mothers seek haven with Miss Lillian. She has children of lepers, too, taken from their parents before they contract the disease.
Lillian quickly made Egypt her home. She was determined to care for her orphans as a biological mother would for their own. The orphanage was staffed solely on a volunteer or freewill system, though children and widows within the grounds were expected to play their part in keeping the affairs and daily workings of the facility in order. As word spread of Trasher’s success, many from America came to volunteer their time and efforts by teaching, serving as chaplains, and filling odd jobs throughout the orphanage. Due to the fluctuating and unreliable streams of funding, the orphanage operated on a threadbare budget making the contributions of its members all the more critical. In the early days, the household tasks involved cooking, cleaning, mending, and building small pieces of furniture.
Lillian Trasher operated by faith, praying each hour to God to meet the needs of God’s children. Many times she was desperate for support, and she often went door-to-door on her donkey soliciting for donations of food or money from wealthy Egyptian locals. By asking boldly, both to God and to others, Trasher was able to uphold her two requirements: first, the orphanage should never go into debt; and second, no orphan should be turned away.
Trasher was not without troubles. In 1933 an anti-foreigner and anti-missionary campaign arose from Egyptian nationalist groups which sought to break imperialist control of Arabs. Lillian Trasher resolutely remained in Egypt despite the flight patterns of other American missionaries who were in Assiout, Cairo, and Alexandria. During years of political hardship, Trasher expanded the capabilities of the orphanage and doubled down on efforts to create a sustainable community, especially when the local Egyptian community wrestled with violence and instability from nationalist uprisings. While other Westerners fled back to America and Europe, Trasher laid her stakes in Egypt, and purchased more land adjacent to her orphanage. This was a task she had wanted to accomplish for years. Trasher had a vision for the new land. She intended to use the property for agriculture so that orphans would be fed from their own crops. The new addition of land complemented Trasher’s already existing dairy farm and slaughtering pen, which was home to Jersey cattle purchased from the former American Presbyterian mission.
By the end of World War II in 1945, the Assiout Orphanage began installing running water into the buildings and celebrated the completion of a hospital wing, which allowed sick children to be housed separately. By the 1950s, the “orphanage” expanded to include a total of sixteen buildings on nine acres—complete with dormitories, a hospital wing, a chapel, schools, nurseries, a bakery, gardens, sewing rooms, carpentry workshops, and other various facilities to teach orphans trade skills which accompanied their education. The 1957 annual report revealed that through the course of forty-six years, the orphanage had received well over $1.6 million in monetary donations alone. By that year, the orphanage was home to some 1,141 children, though an estimated 6,000 children had called it their home (Trasher, Personal Letters, and Statement of Account, FPHC).
The Assiout Orphanage was a home for the people of Egypt, and Trasher labored tirelessly to make sure that the institution was also managed by the people of Egypt. As it was her custom, she instilled values and a sense of familial unity within the orphanage, so that her first generation of children became caretakers of the next generation.
A true mother and overseer, Trasher worked tirelessly to provide financial stability, hope for the future, and spiritual care to all in her orphanage. She administered a familial model in day-to-day operations, causing the orphanage to eventually reach a population of a small village. Beginning her career as a single, simple, servant-hearted Pentecostal girl, Trasher eventually gained the colloquial title of the “Nile Mother,” a name given to her by the thousands of orphans she raised in Assiout, Egypt.
This article appeared in “What Holds Us Together: Hope that Spans Generations,” the Spring 2020 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.