By Sandra Phinney
Anyone with a penchant for dates and history may recall that in 1922, Marconi began making regular broadcasts from England, the British Broadcasting Corp. was established, and 14 republics formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A lesser-known story that also unfolded in 1922 — yet one with huge historical import — involved a woman from rural Nova Scotia and the fate of over 5,000 Armenian orphans.
Meet Sara Corning.
Corning was born in Chegoggin, Yarmouth County, in 1872. After finishing high school, she went to New Hampshire to study nursing — a plucky thing for a young woman to do back then.
In December 1917, she heard about the Halifax Explosion and immediately went there to help.
Shortly after, Corning joined the American Red Cross and was eventually assigned to the Near East Relief, which was providing humanitarian services to the Armenians who were being massacred by the Ottoman Turks.
In 1922, Corning travelled to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) where the Near East Relief was headquartered. From there, the 50-year-old was sent to the Armenian capital to be in charge of an orphanage. She also worked in refugee camps.
By year’s end, she was stationed on the coast in Smyrna (now Izmir) — a city characterized by disaster and chaos. Corning later recounted in the Kimball Union Alumni Bulletin that “the Turkish army was just taking the city as we arrived.” “The place was crowded with many sick refugees and we opened a clinic to take care of them as best we could, but it was soon closed by the soldiers.”
She wrote about looting, the city being set afire and how many of the refugees jumped into the harbour and drowned rather than be burned alive.
Under great peril, Corning gathered the children from the orphanage there and led them through the burning city to safety aboard an American ship, where they were taken to Constantinople. She later established an orphanage for them on the island of Syrosi, Greece.
In June 1923, Corning was invited to Athens, where King George II of Greece presented her with the Order of the Knights of St. Xavier for her courage and bravery.
The following year, Corning returned to Turkey, where she continued to work and care for orphans. She also adopted five children. Although they did not always live with her, she provided for their well-being and education.
Fast forward to April 21, 2004, when the Canadian Parliament passed Bill M380 recognizing the deaths of over 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 as a genocide.
Earlier that month, His Holiness Karekin ll, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, issued a statement titled Message of Blessing, which included a tribute to Corning.
It said in part: “The name of the late philanthropist Sara Corning is very cordial and precious to Armenians living around the world. (We) acknowledge with deep gratitude her efforts to salvage several thousands of their compatriots living in Turkey … they were saved thanks to the unwavering humanitarian works of Sara Corning.”
After her retirement, Corning moved back to her childhood home; she died in 1969. Her headstone in the Chegoggin Baptist Church Cemetery reads: She Lived To Serve.
Although Sara Corning is not a household name in Nova Scotia, she is well-known to the Armenian community in Canada. In September 2012, the Sara Corning Centre for Genocide Education opened in Toronto.
Photos courtesy of Yarmouth County Museum/The Chronicle Herald. Article reprinted with permission from Sandra Phinney.
Sara Corning, a 20th-century heroine (Original article)