All opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Jerusalem, the city of peace, had been subjected to millennia of conflict. Yet on a cold December morning in 1917, the city braced itself for an invasion not seen since the Crusades. For the first time in 818 years, Christian forces had encircled the Old City. Hassain Effendi al Husseini, the Ottoman mayor of Jerusalem, surrendered to British-led Allied forces by waving a shredded hospital sheet given him by an auburn-haired American woman known to Muslims, Christians and Jews as Ummuna, the “mother of us all.” Who was this “mother of mercy”? How did a young child from Chicago wind up living a life of service in the Holy Land?

Bertha Spafford Vester was a woman of indomitable spirit and selflessness. Born in 1879 to Horatio and Anna Spafford, Bertha grew up in the specter of profound tragedy. The Spaffords’ first four daughters perished in the Ville du Havre shipwreck in the North Atlantic. Anna was pulled from the wreckage alone and unconscious. Horatio, who was in Chicago on business, rushed to reunite with his wife. He penned the words to the famous hymn, It Is Well With My Soul, as he passed the spot where his daughters drowned. Following this unfathomable tragedy, the Spaffords welcomed a son, Horatio, and two daughters, Bertha and Grace, into their family. The babble of childish laughter once again filled Horatio and Anna’s home.

Tragically, the Spaffords’ only son succumbed to scarlet fever when he was 4. Overwhelmed with grief and facing financial ruin, the Spaffords left Chicago and moved to Jerusalem in 1881. Eagerly awaiting the second coming of Christ, the Spaffords, along with a group of followers known as the “Overcomers,” planned to wait for Christ while serving in the Holy Land. Living a life of radical community, the Overcomers set up an “American Colony” within the Old City. They sustained themselves by opening a hotel and a thriving photography business that captured the psyche of the Holy Land in the caliginous twilight of the Ottoman Empire.

A view of the Old City.

It is in this uncertain world that Bertha Spafford lived. During her nearly 90 years in Jerusalem, she experienced the city under Turkish, British, Jordanian and Israeli control. Through famine, war, plague and peace, Bertha continued her family’s mission of service. Though urged to evacuate Jerusalem by the American consulate during the Great War, the Spaffords stayed put, stating, “We came to serve, and this is our supreme moment for service.”

Jerusalem suffered brutally during World War I. The Levant was brought to its knees by famine, typhoid outbreaks and a monstrous plague of locusts. In 1917, as savage fighting broke out between the Ottomans and the British in Gaza, Jerusalem was flooded with waves of casualties from the frontlines.

Bertha sprang into action. Horrified by the sight of wounded soldiers left in the streets, she rallied her resources into managing not just one but four different hospitals. Never prone to shirk difficulty, Bertha conducted operations on makeshift surgery tables and organized soup kitchens that fed up to 6000 people daily. As an American married to a German, she was accosted about her loyalties during the conflict. Her graceful reply was this: “We plan to nurse neither friend nor foe– only humanity.”

A portrait of Bertha Spafford Vester

After the war, Bertha continued nursing. On Christmas Eve, 1925, Bertha was departing for a carol service in Bethlehem. She was stopped by a young Bedouin couple. The husband brought his wife, pregnant and gravely ill, a day’s journey on a donkey to reach the hospital. To their despair, the hospital was closed for Christmas. This tragic irony was not lost on Bertha who said: 

“Frankly, I was anxious to leave for the caroling. Then the thought struck me: here right before me was a rustic madonna, very ill… with no place for her or her child at the inn, either.”

Bertha didn’t go to Bethlehem. Instead, she became the hands and feet of Christ to a family in desperate need. This chance encounter led to the founding of the Anna Spafford Children’s Hospital and Spafford Children’s Center.

 Bertha Spafford Vester spent the rest of her life caring for the children of Jerusalem and welcoming all who visited her. She was a beloved matriarch of the Old City. Sternly faced, heavily armed soldiers would break into smiles and rush to kiss the hand of the white-haired grandmother slowly going to visit her “babies” in the children’s hospital. Many of these now-strapping soldiers had once been infants under her care. She left a lasting legacy of love that bears fruit to this day. 

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” -Matthew 19:14


Learn More about Bertha Spafford Vester:

American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem, by Jane Fletcher Geniesse

Flowers of the Holy Land, by Bertha Spafford Vester

Our Jerusalem, by Bertha Spafford Vester