The Popstefanov Family
of Bansko, Bulgaria

Katerina Dimitrova Stephanova


Katerina Stephanova Tsilka

Early Life - Pt 1
Early Life - Pt 2 Education - Pt 1
Education - Pt 2
1st Trip to USA-1
1st Trip to USA- 2
Return to Europe
Abduction 1901-2
Touring the USA
Return to Albania
Katerina Alone

The Tsilkas Return to Europe, 1900


As winter weather faded at the beginning of 1900, Gregory and Katerina began to think about their return.  On
March 29, 1900, Rev. Lewis Bond, the American missionary in charge at the Monastir station, with whom Gregory was very well acquainted, wrote back to Boston:  “I am in correspondence with a young Albanian, Mr. Gregory M. Tsilka, now in the Senior year at Union Theol. Semry. New York.  He is very desirous of preaching to his own people but I am not able to make him any offer.  The spirit of his letters is excellent and I judge he would make an efficient worker.  I regret that [I] cannot secure his services when the need is so very urgent.  Perhaps some church would interest itself in him and his people.”

Bond ‘s subsequent letter to Barton on July 6, 1900 revealed that Gregory’s background was not so very different from Katerina’s, so far as arranged marriages were concerned. “Mr. Tsilka was engaged to a graduate of the Kortcha school before he went to America,” wrote Rev. Bond.  “It seemed to us and to everybody but the relatives of the girl a very undesirable match.  Mr. Tsilka had the girl follow him to America to be further educated.  While there the flame of love – if there ever was any – died out and by mutual consent the engagement was broken off.  Now the girl’s relations here in Monastir and at Kortcha [are] furious.  A brother, formerly a member of our church and excommunicated, arrested Mr. Tsilka as soon as he reached Monastir.  Under the circumstances it seems that for Mr. & Mrs. Tsilka to work elsewhere for a year at least.  We like him and his wife and I hope they will eventually do good work in Albania.“[10]

Gregory and Katerina were back in Albania by the end of Summer, 1900.  Writing from Samokov to Boston, James W. Baird noted “On account of a law suit, Mr. Cilka cannot leave Monastir vilayet and so has given up his hope of going to Radovish & will work in Monastir field, most probably at Kortcha.”  Baird concluded his note with an interesting observation:  “There are reports of a rather larger number of deeds of violence than usual, but the efforts of the Bulg. Revolutionary committee may be responsible for much of that.  That Committee has brought & will bring only trouble & useless suffering on Macedonia.  Perhaps its vain efforts will cause Macedonians to think of a salvation unmixed with political aspirations.”

On August 12, 1900, as she and Gregory waited at Monastir, Katerina wrote to her old mentor in America, Miss Anna Maxwell: 

Do not worry about us.  We are perfectly happy—both because of God’s love to us and of our devotion to each other.  We have been on a missionary tour these last two weeks.  The American students were with us too.  There were no Christians in that place, so we hired two big rooms and did our own cooking.  The principal of the American school and Mr. Tsilka did the dishwashing.  Afterwards we had a man and girl to do our work, so we devoted our time to Christian work.  On the Sundays I thought Mr. Tsilka would preach himself to death.  The place was so crowded that the people had to look over each others’ heads.  I have done a good deal of medical and surgical work here.  The people are so ignorant of the laws of health!  A woman will come to me with a baby in her arms.  ‘Sick,’ she says, ‘has fever.’  A few questions, and I ask, ‘Do you bathe the baby every day?’  ‘Oh no! no!’ she screams, expecting my approval of her not bathing the baby.  My prescription is usually castor-oil, regular feeding, and a bath every day, and in a week’s time the creature is just as bright and happy as any baby in America.[11] 

Rev. Lewis Bond, writing to Boston on August 13, 1900 declared: “We are very glad to know that there is a possibility of our mission being reinforced with two new families if not with three.  If but two come, I fear the Albanians will have to wait.  Mr. Tsilka will probably get clear of his difficulty with his would-be brother-in-law very soon now.  I hope the way will be open for him to enter the Albanian work a year hence.  Our friends in Monastir & Prilep like him very much.  And his wife is excellent.”[12]   

On October 2, 1900, Bond wrote again to Barton and reported:  “Mr. & Mrs. Tsilka have entered upon their Albanian work.  They will reside for the present – perhaps permanently – at Kortcha…Mr. & Mrs. Tsilka have made an excellent impression here and at Prilep and we anticipate much good from their efforts in Albania.  Mrs. Tsilka is handicapped at the start by ignorance of the language, but she is giving herself heartily to the work.  I sincerely hope you will not fail to appreciate the £30 which in put in our estimates for past support of Mr. Tsilka.  The Seminary have pledged his salary for two years but Mr. Tsilka assures me that no definite sum was named and that a number of those you promised aid conditioned it on their success in securing good pastorates.  Of course nothing was given toward their traveling expenses from America…Native agency at this station is in a somewhat hobbling condition.”[13]

Katerina’s initial difficulties at Kortcha were reflected in a second surviving letter she wrote to Anna Maxwell:[14]

Kortcha, Albania, Turkey, Europe
January 21, 1901

My dear Miss Maxwell, 

Since we arrived here it seems to me as though I have sunk way down into the deep of the sea.  Shut in from all communication with the civilized world, no papers, no people of enlightenment.  Mail comes only twice a week, and that not to be depended upon, for the postmaster (a Turk) distributes it whenever he pleases.  The women are ignorant as goats, for they are not allowed to go out of their houses.  They think it terrible for women to be in the presence of men.  They must use neither eyes nor mouth.  Obedience, and only obedience, is their virtue.  All my actions seem wonderful to them.  The men treat me very respectfully, even the Turks.  Woman is not respected because she is ignorant, and does not know how to respect herself.  I have more nursing and doctoring than I can possibly do.  There are few doctors, whose diplomas say ‘Good only for the East.’ That is, they go to a medical school in Athens and study a few things, and then get a diploma with the above statement.  You would have smiled if I told you that I was called to a consultation by the doctors here on a case of septicaemia.  I do miss nursing under a competent doctor.  They are trying to get permission from the Sultan to build a hospital.  I do hope that he may grant it, for it will give me a fine chance for training girls how to nurse the sick.  There are very interesting cases of sickness.  To-day I visited one of the Bey’s (or Lord’s) houses.  Everything about the house was royal, but the women – oh, so blank!  They showed me some of their fancywork, and their skill and taste is wonderful.  There was a chemise embroidered most wonderfully with gold, and its value is over eighty dollars.  I do wish you could visit here sometime.  Our line of work is of every kind.  My husband teaches a few hours a week in the girls’ boarding-school.  This school was daily, and this year we decided to make it boarding, and then only we can have the girls at our command, and mould their character and training in the right direction.  I plan to start a class in nursing in the school.  Besides all these things, I have a house of my own to look after.  My health has been perfect.  Since I came here I do not know that I have a stomach.  The climate is even better than at Asheville, N.C.  The only calamity is poverty, and that is because of the terrible rule of the Turks.  There are rich mines, but they will not permit their opening.  There is so much of which I want to write, but, knowing how busy you are, I shall have to control myself.  Let me say that my going to America would have been useless had I not taken the nurse’s training – it is of such a help to the people here. 

That I am homesick for America I cannot deny, but then I feel strongly that my duty calls me here.  I am enjoying my home life, and we are very congenial in our work.  Mr. Tsilka is so interested in my work that he plans to take a medical course in America when we come to visit.  I have wished to write you long before this, but, as I have said, my time has been simply crowded.  Please kindly remember me to Miss L. Welch (I do not forget her), Miss Stone, and Miss McArthur.  I do not dare to expect a letter from you, but if I do get one I shall be more than happy.

Very respectfully yours,
Kathrina Stephanova Tsilka  

A third letter from Katerina to Miss Maxwell on May 16, 1901 showed that the Tsilkas’ work continued to be as arduous as ever: 

We have had hard work this year, and it won’t be any easier next year.  No Christians at all, and training the girls is a terrible job, but, as I have expressed myself while yet in America, I did expect hard work.  You know one wishes to accomplish so much in a short time.  I want to have the boarding-school well organized and then start my training of nurses, but it will take some time yet.  We have no hospitals.  This year I have felt so strongly the need of nurses.  The world needs more the nurse than the doctor, because the nurse, in many cases, can do the work of a doctor as well as of a nurse.  There are a few doctors here, but they are comparatively useless.  Their diplomas say ‘Good only for the Orient’ – that is, their work is not wanted elsewhere.  I have had the whole town and surrounding villages come to me for help.  Of course, I cannot help all, for I am not a doctor, but I can do good in many cases.  I have opened an abscess in the breast and was very successful, so much so that the doctor here reported me to the government, but the government, instead of stopping me, asked me to be a government nurse—that is, to be paid by the government and sent to visit any case they may ask me.  But, of course, I told them that my object is not money, but to help the needy.  They admired my diploma.  It is a very great thing to have a trained nurse in a place like this.  There are some very interesting diseases here.  There is one which begins with chill and fever, then eruptions at all the joints.  If the patient does not eat fish and chicken he recovers, otherwise goes into consumption.  This place is very healthy, but the people do not know how to guard against contagious diseases.[15] 

Speaking of the Tsilka's activities in Albania, upon their return to Europe, the New York Daily Tribune of February 19, 1902 (page 9)  described them this way:

Mrs. Katherina Stephanove a native of Albania[!]. During several years which she spent in this country, Mrs. Tsilka took a partial medical course, studied for two years at the Moody Bible School, Northfield, and was graduated as a trained nurse from the Presbyterian Hospital Training School. Just before sailing for her home country last year she was married to Gregory M. Tsilka, one of her own countrymen who had been her classmate in the American Mission School at Salonica [Samokov], Turkey and with whom she had disputed academic honors. Since returning to her country the couple have been located at Kortcha, Albania, in Turkey, where, independent of any board, they have been engaged in active missionary work among their people.

Mr. Tsilka was graduated in 1900 from the Union Theological Seminary of this city, and his classmates, headed by the Rev. Howard A. M. Briggs, president of his class of '00, have endeavored to make themselves responsible for the financial support of their work. At present the interest is centered on the support of five Albanian girls in the school for girls established at Kortcha by Mr. and Mrs. Tsilka. This institution has forty students, all that the resources permit. It is the only Christian school for girls in Albania. Mrs. Tsilka's efforts have been devoted, since her return, to benefiting her countrywomen physically as well as spiritually. It is her aim to establish a work among the women which shall lead them so as to understand the general laws of health that better sanitary conditions may prevail in their home and that the children may have better hygienic surroundings.

In a letter to a friend in this city not long ago, Mrs. Tsilka gave some insight into her work. She said:

We began in the girls school with three pupils, and have increased the number as money would allow. We feel that little can be done unless the girls are taken from the bad influences of their homes and put under Christian influences and everyday example. If you know any man or woman who would like to give a helping hand to a noble cause, let him or her support a girl in the school. The expense for each, including board, tuition and room, is $40 a year. Mr. Tsilka is working with and preaching to the people. I am, meanwhile, trying to win their confidence and affection by relieving physical suffering. We are having a hard time, but we know we are needed here and we shall stay and work, and trust God for the rest. The country is beautiful. It is only the people who are not in tune with God. As I go to my patients, Mr. Tsilka accompanies me, as it is not safe for a woman to go alone. The people are so interested in my work of nursing and healing that they occupy nearly all of my time and are beginning to come to me. Our girls in the school are nearly naked. Their clothes are so patched that it is almost impossible to see the original fabric. How often I have thought of the many cast off clothes in America.

It was not obvious from the letters (or the surviving extracts) written to Miss Maxwell, but Katarina was pregnant and sometime in the latter part of the summer of 1901, she gave birth to her firstborn, a baby boy named Victor.  As described in a later letter, Victor was baptized by the Tsilka’s colleague, Rev. Lewis Bond, probably in Monastir, where the Bond family was stationed.  Because she needed to recuperate, had not seen her parents, and Victor was their first grandchild, the Tsilkas decided to travel to Bansko for a short visit.  The episode that would forever change the lives of the Tsilkas has already been mentioned, but two letters succinctly introduce what transpired on an early September afternoon in 1901:[16] 

                                                                        Salonica, Turkey
                                                                                    October 7, 1901

Dear Miss Ryder:  

You will wonder why I am writing to you instead of Katharine, but what follows explains:

On our way from Mrs. Tsilka's home to our work we were surrounded by a large group of armed men -- about twenty-five in number--and carried into the forest. After that they took Miss Stone and my wife. They kept the rest of us all night, and in the morning they were gone, having carried with them Miss Stone and Katharine.

It was pretty nearly one month before we got any answer from them, and now they ask one hundred thousand dollars ransom for both of them. They must be saved soon. Miss Ryder, the friend of my wife, is my friend too, so I confess that she is in the family way of six (?) months. Victor, dear little Victor died. So please do something and collect as much as you can from the nurses and some of the friends, and send it by mail to Salonica, care of Dr. House. There is  mail connection with Salonica for money-orders. Enclosed you will find a letter for Miss Bell Judd--I have forgotten her address. Please forward it. 

Please tell the story to the following persons: Mrs. Anna Cross, 6 Washington Square, New York City; Mrs. Walton, Munn Avenue,  East Orange, N.J., Mr. Kennedy, Presbyterian Hospital, New York City; Mr.     Russell Sturgis, Mrs. Kirkner, Plainfield, N.J.

These are some of my wife's friends, whom she wants to know about it, and help if they can with something. Miss Ryder, please pray for the safety of your friend and my wife.  

Hoping this will find you well, I am

                                               Respectfully  yours,
                                                           Gregory M. Tsilka

Miss Ryder received a second letter from the Tsilka's colleague, Rev. Lewis Bond in October 1901:[17]                                                                                 

Vodena, Europe, Turkey
            Miss Lucy F. Ryder, New York  

Dear Miss Ryder:  

Your letter of September 26 reached me as I was about starting for this place. I wish I could tell you of the release of our dear friend, Mrs. Tsilka, and Miss Stone. However, as to that you would have the announcement in the New York papers quite as soon as we should know it here. Perhaps I may give some items about the capture which have not appeared in print. Mr. and Mrs. Tsilka, Miss Stone, four or five young native lady teachers, our Bible-reader--female,-- and several boy students were captured September 3 on the road from Bansko to Djumaya. A little in advance of this party of Protestants was a man on horseback, presumably bound for Djumaya. This man was severely wounded, and our friends were halted by a party of brigands numbering from thirty to fifty, according to the varying estimates. One of the girls says that about fifteen rifles were pointed at them. All were obliged to dismount and go into the woods two or three miles off the road. The wounded man, who seemed to be a Turk, walked with great difficulty, and when they came to a halt he was put out of his misery. The robbers asked for money, watches and other valuables, but did not search pockets or use any roughness with the ladies. Mr. Tsilka, supposing he would be taken captive, managed to pass on to his wife some money, about twenty-five dollars, which he had. First of all Miss Stone, who had been holding a summer-training school with Mrs. Tsilka's assistance, was taken off by herself. Presently Mrs. Tsilka was taken in the same direction. The horse of the Turk and two muleteer horses were taken. One of the brigands came and, looking over a lot of things scattered on the ground, picked out Miss Stone's Bible and, putting it under his arm, walked back. It is supposed that our two sisters were taken during the night to a place of safety. Mr. Tsilka and the others were kept at the halting-place, silence being enjoined. At daylight they found that their guards had disappeared and they returned in sadness to Bansko. The brigands spoke Turkish only, and were very sparing of speech. Some had their faces blackened or wore masks. Some wore Turkish uniform, other Albanian clothing, and a few were attired as shepherds. It is my opinion that they were all Bulgarians. Mr. Tsilka was at Salonica last week and wrote me that he had received three letters from his wife, written, I suppose, at the dictation of the captors to further the getting of the ransom--twenty-five thousand dollars. As to anything further, the papers have published all and more than we know. We are simply praying and waiting. It has been a sad season for Mr. and Mrs. Tsilka. Their beautiful baby boy, Victor, whom I baptized before they started for Bansko, died at the home of Mrs. Tsilka in Bansko. Then Mrs. Tsilka was dangerously ill and started to come to our annual meeting (In the New York Observer of September 19 I have written a short quarantine experience which may interest you.) But we rejoice that our suffering friends are all persons of strong Christian character. No real evil can come to one who is in close touch with Jesus. We pity the brigands and sympathize with the captives. Mrs. Bond is here with me touring. I will pass on to Mr. Tsilka your kind word of sympathy. 

Footnotes for this section

[9] Ltr, Rev. Lewis Bond, Monastir  to Rev. James L. Barton, Boston, dtd 29 Mar 1900,  American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) Papers, Microfilm Reel 578, Frames 0279-0280.

[10] Ltr, Rev. Lewis Bond, Monastir to Rev. James L. Barton, Boston, dtd 6 Jul 1900,  ABCFM Papers, Microfilm Reel 578, Frames 0282-0283.

[11] Ltr, Katerina Tsilka to Miss Anna Maxwell, dtd 12 Aug 1900, extracted in “Foreign Department” column,  American Journal of Nursing, vol. 2, #6 (March 1902), p. 473.

[12] Ltr, Rev. Lewis Bond, Resen, Eur. Turkey to Rev. James L. Barton, Boston, dtd 13 Aug 1900,  ABCFM Papers, Microfilm Reel 578, Frames 0283-0284.

[13] Ltr, Rev. Lewis Bond, Monastir to Rev. James L. Barton, Boston, dtd 2 Oct 1900,  ABCFM Papers, Microfilm Reel 578, Frames 0284-0285.

[14] Ltr, Katerina Tsilka to Miss Anna Maxwell, dtd 21 Jan 1901, included in the “Foreign Department” column,  American Journal of Nursing, vol. 2, #6 (March 1902), p. 473-474.

[15] Ltr, Katerina Tsilka to Miss Anna Maxwell, dtd 16 May 1901, extracted in the “Foreign Department” column,  American Journal of Nursing, vol. 2, #6 (March 1902), p. 474-475.

[16] Ltr, Gregory M. Tsilka to Miss Lucy Ryder, dtd 7 Oct 1901, included in the “Foreign Department” column,  American Journal of Nursing, vol. 2, #6 (March 1902), p. 475.

[17] Ltr, Rev. Lewis Bond to Miss Lucy Ryder, dtd Oct 1901, included in the “Foreign Department” column,  American Journal of Nursing, vol. 2, #6 (March 1902), pp. 475-476. Richard M. Cochran, Ph.D. |
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