The history of the Spafford Children’s Center dates back to events in the 1870s and is a story of finding solace in helping others at a time of tragedy.
The Center was founded by Bertha Spafford Vester in 1925 when she took in and looked after a baby in need. Bertha and her sister Grace came with their parents to Jerusalem from Chicago at a young age after their family suffered tragic losses. Bertha continued the philanthropic work of her parents and their ‘American Colony’, who were engaged in helping the people of Jerusalem regardless of religious affiliation.
Below is a full account of this history.
Horatio and Anna Spafford
In 1871, Horatio Spafford, a prosperous lawyer and devout Christian, and his wife, Anna, were living comfortably with their four young daughters in Lake View, Chicago.
In that year the great fire broke out which devastated the entire city. For the next two years Horatio and Anna devoted their time to welfare work amongst the refugees of the fire.
By November 1873 the Spaffords needed some respite and decided to join friends in Europe but just before their departure Horatio was detained on business. Anna and their four daughters were persuaded to set off without him but en route tragedy struck. The steamship they were travelling on, the Ville du Havre, sank after colliding with another ship in mid-ocean.
Of the hundreds on board, Anna was one of only 27 who were rescued having been kept afloat by a piece of debris. Her daughters did not survive. Overcome with despair at the loss of her childern, Anna felt strongly that she had been saved for a purpose.
In Chicago, Horatio received a tragic telegram from his wife: ‘Saved alone.’
Setting off to bring Anna home, he crossed the Atlantic and the watery grave of his four daughters. Moved by the experience he wrote a hymn, ‘IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL’, which expressed his faith. The hymn remains one of the most popular Christian hymns in the USA.
“When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot,
thou hast taught me to say:
It is well, it is well, with my soul”
(A facsimile copy of the original hymn, handwritten by Horatio, can be downloaded from the Library of Congress website)
Having returned to Chicago, the Spaffords were blessed with further children, a son Horatio, and a daughter, Bertha. However, another crushing blow was dealt when little Horatio died of scarlet fever at the age of three.
The couple’s faith remained strong in the face of these difficult times but Horatio gradually became convinced that the ‘End of Days’ was imminent and decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In a letter to a friend, Horatio explained: ‘Jerusalem is where my Lord lived, suffered and conquered, and I, too, wish to learn how to live, suffer and, especially, to conquer.’
Six months after the birth of another daughter, Grace, the Spaffords and a few friends set off for Jerusalem, arriving there in September 1881. The group settled in a house in the Old City that is built against the northern medieval city wall. They came to be known as the ‘American Colony’.
From the beginning they were generous, sharing what little they had with others and the American Colony quickly became known as a place of hospitality for all – Jews, Christians and Muslims were all welcome there.
When they were joined later by a group of Swedish Christians they needed a larger premises and were able to move to a former Arab Pasha’s home north of the Damascus gate, where they continued their communal way of life.
During World War I, when famine and plague ravaged the city, the American Colony operated a soup kitchen for the poor of Jerusalem and also ran, with permission from the Turkish Governor, hospitals for the wounded of both sides in the conflict.
Bertha Spafford Vester
On Christmas Eve 1925, Horatio and Anna’s daughter, Bertha Spafford Vester was hurrying home to join her husband and children to go to Bethlehem to sing carols, when she encountered a Bedouin who had travelled for six hours with his sick wife and their new born baby on a donkey. They had found the hospital closed to outpatients because of the Christmas feast. Bertha was greatly moved by their need and later said, “Here before me stood a rustic Madonna and babe, and, similar to Mary’s plight, there was no place for them to stay.”
She immediately took action and the woman was admitted to the hospital, but by morning, she had died. The next day, the husband came with his baby and begged Bertha to keep the child. He said, “If I take my baby boy to my cave home, he will surely die.” Bertha took the baby, named him Noel, hired a nurse, and established them in the house on the wall where the American Colony had first settled when they arrived in Jerusalem. Within a week Bertha had been asked to take in two more orphaned babies.
Thus the Spafford Baby Home was born.
Several years later the Baby Home developed into a Children’s Hospital with 60 beds and a surgical wing. For many years it was the only children’s hospital in the Old City of Jerusalem and from 1948 it played a vital role in serving families of all faiths from eastern Jerusalem and its surrounding villages and towns.
Adapting to different needs
In 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem it was decided that the needs of the local people could best be served by focusing on Preventive Medicine. The hospital was renamed the Spafford Children’s Center, and operated as an outpatient medical clinic for sick children, an ante-natal clinic and an infant welfare department to monitor well babies for development, weighing and vaccinations.
The Spafford Children’s Center is still located in the original American Colony home and is run as a not for profit organisation. Some of the members of the charity’s board of trustees are the great-grandchildren of Horatio and Anna Spafford whose aim remains to provide medical and social services to the local people according to their needs and the funds available.
As well as its strong heritage, the Spafford Children’s Center is a forward-looking and highly professional organisation which is recognised locally as a center of excellence. The turbulent situation in the Middle East requires the Spafford Children’s Center to adapt to meet each new challenge facing the families of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Through a program of activities and summer camps the Center offers the opportunity for youngsters from deprived backgrounds to experience normal life, which they have been denied due to the political circumstances they find themselves in.
The Center has pioneered the use of new techniques in dealing with trauma and now operates growing social work and psychological departments to help families cope with the damaging effects of violence and the restrictive occupation experienced by many children in the region. The schooling of these children has also suffered and the Center helps them with remedial education classes to bring them back into the education system.
The Center now also operates medical outreach programs in the West Bank, in Taybeh and Bethany (Izzariyeh), to provide services to patients who are isolated east of Israel’s Separation Wall.
Continuing with the same values
Although current needs are different from those experienced when the Spafford family first came to Jerusalem, the moving spirit is still the same.
Help is given to anyone in need, regardless of race, religion or cultural background. The Center is unusual, in an area of sectarian conflict, in having staff of different faiths working together for a common cause – the benefit of deprived and sick children.
Further information on the historical events which led to the formation of the Spafford Children’s Center can be obtained from the US Library of Congress -
- or from reading ‘Our Jerusalem’ a personal account by Bertha Spafford Vester.