Lillian Trasher: The Nile Mother

In some Orthodox traditions, a “name’s day” is celebrated when the saint you were named after is commemorated. As a Lilyan in the Coptic church, there was no such thing. There is no saint Lilyan/Lillian anywhere in the synaxarium (book of the lives of saints), or any biblical story. I celebrated a milestone birthday last week that left me thinking about the name I was given at birth. 

When I was old enough to ask my parents who they named me after, they briefly told me the story of Lillian Trasher, who did great missionary work in Egypt, and how she was the inspiration behind my name. A few years later, when I was in college, I got my hands on a book about her and packed it in my backpack as I was ready to travel to Nigeria on my first mission trip. I learned of her story and was amazed at her zeal and relentless pursuit to serve the orphans of Egypt.

Lillian Trasher was an American born before the turn of the 20th century. She’s known as the Nile Mother of Egypt. When she heard a missionary speak about his ministry in India, she was convinced God was asking her to do the same. Being convicted by Acts 7:34, she decided she had to go to Egypt to serve there under the Episcopal Church. 

“I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.” (Acts 7:34)

She called off her wedding, which was only ten days out, and traveled by sea to Egypt with only a few dollars in her pocket. Once she arrived in Assiut in 1910 to the missionary house she would reside in, an abandoned baby girl was left in her care. Although the baby’s cries irritated the others in the house, Lillian knew she couldn’t ignore the baby’s needs and other orphans like her. Caring for children was not the original plan of her missionary work, but she again felt a deep calling, this time to serve the fatherless. 

What followed next were years of fighting the resistance to establish and maintain the first orphanage in Egypt. She had to battle through the opposition of the missionary team she was staying with, win over the locals who didn’t like the idea of a Christian orphanage, and learn how to run an entire orphanage with minimal resources. The book details many incidents where doors were being shut on her, food running out, and disease taking away one child after another. Yet she continued to strive and turn to God in every step she took. Although there were times she doubted, times she questioned where the next meal was coming from, and times she came close to quitting, her faith was still unshakable.

Limitless faith is not a place someone arrives at overnight. It takes years of trusting in God and following His call even when it seems impossible. I often ask myself, if I was in her shoes, what would I have done? Would I have followed the crazy call of leaving behind everything I knew at home and venturing off to a foreign land to serve God’s people? Would I have kept pushing through every obstacle that came my way? Or would I have given up?

I know the answers to those questions come down to my spiritual resilience. I don’t have to do anything drastic or life-changing, like moving to a new country as a missionary. I can grow my spiritual muscles by the small acts of discipline I should be practicing daily: praying, reading the scripture, loving others, living a sacramental life, etc. If I cannot honor these small but impactful practices, how can I expect myself to take on the larger tasks?

During this holy time of Lent, I encourage you to hone in on strengthening your spiritual life. By perfecting these disciplines, you’ll be able to move mountains when you need to. Sharpen your ear to God’s call, and don’t be afraid to step up to the challenges you’ll find along the way. 


P.S. If you don’t have time to dive into this beautiful book (pictured above), I suggest reading this Wikipedia article to better understand who Lillian was and what she did.

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