St. Ursula’s: More Than a School

text and photos by Katerina Katsarka Whitley

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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.

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