CNEWA
ONE Magazine
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St. Ursula’s: More Than a School

An orphanage in Greece has offered education, shelter and loving care for more than a century.

The Orphanage of St. Ursula on the Greek island of Tinos is located less than eight miles from the seaport, but it takes a visitor nearly an hour to get there. Most of Tinos is mountainous, and the taxi must climb a steep, winding road that curls higher and higher up the slopes. Far below lies the Aegean Sea, startlingly blue even on a cold, gray day.

At the top of a hill the taxi finally stops. In a quiet yard nearby stands a large white building with long, uncurtained windows. It looks deserted. All the doors are locked except the last one, which opens into a long corridor.

At the end of the hallway, a voice can be heard explaining a geography lesson. I stop outside the classroom, hesitating to interrupt. But Sister Angela, the teacher, suddenly looks up and smiles, saying, “Children, this kind lady is a friend of yours. She comes on behalf of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.”

Smiling shyly, the little girls stand up immediately next to their desks to welcome the visitor from America. They are dressed in the traditional white-collared blue pinafores of the Greek public schools. Their hair is neatly combed and their black eyes are shining. I return the smiles and the greeting.

“How polite they are, and how pretty.”

“Like all Greek girls,” says a deep, gentle voice at the door. It is Reverend Sister Marie-Etienne Etcheverry, who left her native France years ago to care for the children at St. Ursula’s. Ma Mere, as she is called, is warm, humorous, and decidedly spry in spite of her years. She and Sister Angela invite me to follow them on a tour of the school. Meanwhile, the beautifully-behaved students work quietly at their lessons.

Ma Mere explains that although the school is called an orphanage, it has only four orphans. The rest of the twenty young boarding students come from farms on the island. Most of the children are maintained and educated by donors in the United States through CNEWA’s Needy Child Sponsorship Program.

“Usually the girls’ parents are poor,” says Ma Mere. “In some families, one of the parents is dead. So we educate their children.”

The Convent of St. Ursula was founded on Tinos in 1862. From the beginning, the Sisters taught and cared for orphans and for poor children whose parents emigrated to find work in Constantinople (modern Istanbul in Turkey).

“The Sisters took the children in,” says Sister Angela. “The parents had nowhere else to leave them. The nuns supported children from different countries and races.”

Today, St. Ursula’s includes a grammar school and two vocational schools, one for sewing and one for carpetmaking. The twenty girls in grades one through six are boarders; most of the older girls who attend the vocational schools commute from their villages on Tinos. Tuition is paid only by those who can afford it. For the rest of its support, St. Ursula’s relies on the contributions of generous friends.

The technical training in sewing and carpet-making is a particularly important part of St. Ursula’s curriculum. Years ago, when little or no education was available on the Greek islands, girls often left to seek a living on the mainland. Young, illiterate, and without industrial skills, they found few opportunities for employment. Many had no choice but to work as live-in maids for city dwellers. Others became the sad victims of crime and immorality. Having nowhere to turn for help and no means of support, they were easy prey for the unscrupulous.

All this is changed for the young women of St. Ursula’s. Today they can learn a trade that will enable them to earn a living.

Sewing classes at the school are held in a cheerful workroom. The walls are papered with dress patterns, and the girls practice cutting on long tables. As they acquire skill, they are able to make their own clothes. When they graduate, they will support themselves by working independently or in small private factories.

In the carpet-making workshop, teenage weavers fashion large Oriental rugs. The wool and other necessary materials are furnished by a national institute, which then receives the profits when the rugs are sold. The girls are paid, however, for the work they do each day, which actually consists of tying numerous small knots. Each rug, with its intricate, carefully-worked pattern, contains thousands of these knots.

The Sisters help their student weavers by rolling huge skeins of wool into special balls that unravel from the inside. One of the Sisters picks up a ball of wool as big as a football.

“Many, many hours have gone into this,” she grins.

When the vocational students leave St. Ursula’s they have a valuable craft literally at their fingertips. From their earnings they save money for their dowries – an old Greek custom – and even after marriage they keep in touch with the Sisters.

“Their parents keep in touch also,” says Ma Mere, “as well as the people in the villages of Tinos, and we offer them whatever help they need.”

Ma Mere speaks naturally, without a trace of self-consciousness, as a mother would talk of helping her child. The Sisters care for others with a love that is cheerful and generous, never mindful of their own sacrifices.

As Ma Mere leads the way down wide convent corridors, the damp chill wind seems to penetrate the very walls. The buildings are old, and the ceilings are high. There is no central heating.

“Do you use any stoves?” I ask.

“None,” Ma Mere replies. “As you know, wood is nearly non-existent in Greece, and fuel is very expensive.”

“But how do you keep warm?”

With a twinkle in her eye, Ma Mere pauses on the stairway. She lifts the edge of her outer skirt, made of dark, rough-woven fabric. Underneath are two similar layers and a long hand-knit skirt.

“With these,” she chuckles.

And with hard work, I say to myself. Fourteen Sisters live in the convent. Like Ma Mere, most of them have been there for a long time. Some are in their eighties. One Sister has been sick, and several others have stayed awake at night to nurse her. They look tired, but they greet me with kind good humor and smiling eyes.

As we walk through the hallways and meeting rooms, I notice that many colorful pictures and posters are pinned to the white walls. Sister Angela lifts the corner of one of the pictures. Large sections of plaster are missing.

“The place is so big,” she says with resignation. “We have not been able to paint since the ’60’s.”

Looking farther back, she remembers the war years.

“In the cities people starved,” I remark. “How did you manage on this island?”

“We almost didn’t,” Sister replies. “Those were hard times. I was a little girl then, here on Tinos. I used to come up here to be with the nuns. I would see them on the bare hills trying to find some wild plants to boil, just to survive.”

In the 1940’s, there was more food back home in the Sisters’ native countries than there was in Greece. Yet the Sisters chose to stay, to care for the children.

The students of St. Ursula’s reflect that loving care. They are healthy, happy and neat. Their smiles are ready and warm, and their deep affection for the Sisters is obvious.

Thanks to the Sisters and to CNEWA sponsors, each girl at St. Ursula’s receives a fine education. Each graduate possesses a craft that enables her to earn a living with dignity. All the girls have a chance to remain on the beautiful island of Tinos, preserving their faith and their native traditions. For them and for their parents, these are priceless gifts.

Katerina K. Whitley was born in Greece and now lives in North Carolina. She visited St. Ursula’s on a recent trip to her homeland.

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