FROM ARCHIVES EMERGES A CATHOLIC WHO AIDED ARMENIANS’ PLIGHT
April 20 2015
By Lou Baldwin
Some Armenian refugees such as these did survive the genocide that left
up to 1.5 million Christian Armenians dead. It has has been called
the first genocide of the 20th century. (Philadelphia Archdiocesan
Historical Research Center)
At a time when Christians of all denominations are being attacked by
radical Muslims in many first parts of the world, it is the centenary
of what has been called the first genocide of the 20th century: the
slaughter of between 1 million and 1.5 million Christian Armenians
by Muslim Turks and Kurds in 1915, with sporadic violence against
the remaining Armenian refugees for the next decade.
“Men, women and children were turned out of their homes, marched
to exhaustion and starved, beaten and burned to death by the tens
of thousands,” Archbishop Chaput wrote in his March 5 column on
Pope Francis, during a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, April
12 to commemorate the massacre, used the term “genocide,” to which
the Turkish government strenuously objected.
To put it in context, in 1915 Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, of which Armenia
was part, was along with Germany and Austria at war with the United
Kingdom, France and Russia, among others. The United States was then
neutral, although after it entered the war it opposed only Germany
and Austria, not Turkey.
Although the Turkish Empire was largely Muslim, most Armenians were
Christian, members of the Armenian Apostolic Church with a history
they believe traces back to the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus.
Armenia also bordered Russia, which was Christian, and the Turks feared
the Armenians would rebel and fight for the Russians, and some did.
In retaliation Turkey put in place a ruthless policy that saw most
Armenian men in the area near Russia killed and the women and children
sent on what was a virtual death march to other parts of the empire.
While Turkey to this day continues to deny a genocide took place,
eyewitnesses from that era testified otherwise.
In a dispatch to the American ambassador in Constantinople, the
local American Consul Leslie Davis wrote in July 1915, “It has been
no secret that the plan was to destroy the Armenian Race as a race,
but the methods used have been more cold-blooded and barbarous if
not more effective than I had at first supposed.”
The massacres did not end in 1915, and for the next decade people of
good will from around the world contributed vast sums of money for
the relief of the large number of now-scattered Armenian refugees.
Walter George Smith, shown in 1923, was a prominent Catholic lawyer
in Philadelphia who raised money and awareness of the Armenians.
(Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center)
Walter George Smith was a prominent Catholic Philadelphia lawyer who
engaged in the relief efforts and visited the region from November
1920 through February 1921.
“In the long history of human government,” Smith would later write,
“there can scarcely be found a parallel to the tragic fate of this
gallant people. Of Aryan race though seated for centuries in Asia,
they have never lost their national characteristics. We of the Western
world have been slow to realize their value to the cause of Christian
At the end of the war and the capitulation of Turkey, the Treaty of
Sevres signed by Turkey dissolved the Ottoman Empire and stipulated
the borders of an independent Armenia were to be set by the President
of the United States, even though the U.S. had not been at war
with Turkey. It was even suggested the U.S. accept Armenia as a
Ultimately President Woodrow Wilson did nothing, probably because (as
today) he was a Democratic president with a Republican Congress that
wanted no parts of further foreign entanglements to the point that
Congress even prevented the U.S. from joining the League of Nations.
Nevertheless, with hundreds of thousands of Armenians in refugee
camps around the Middle East and Eastern Europe, private citizens
in the U.S. raised more than $100 million for Armenian relief, a sum
that would translate into more than $1.3 billion today. Some of the
donors were from the Armenian diaspora, many others were members of
churches, mostly Protestant, that had missionaries in the region but
there were Catholics also.
Possibly the most prominent American Catholic to champion the plight
of the Armenian Christians was Smith. He was the son of a Civil War
general, a former president of the American Bar Association, a former
president of the American Catholic Historical Society, a 1923 winner
of Notre Dame University’s Laetare Medal and a brother-in-law to St.
He was very active with Armenian Relief especially in the early
1920s, and served as president of the Armenian Relief Society. The
now Sovietized Russia occupied that section of Armenia that bordered
with it and the rest remained under control of the new government in
Turkey headed by Mustafa Kamal (Ataturk).
Although secular, Turkey ignored the terms of the Sevres Agreement.
Neither the European powers nor the United States did anything to
enforce the peace agreement. It would not be until 1991, with the
collapse of the Soviet Union, that the section of Armenia that was
under its control became a free and independent republic.
Smith, whose personal papers are held in the archives of the
Archdiocese of Philadelphia, could not know this future and by 1924
was pessimistic for Armenia.
Writing in New Armenia magazine that year he described the Armenians,
“…to their eternal glory there remains the truth that among all
Christian peoples they stand unique or nearly so in accepting death
rather than treason to their Christian faith. Men, women and children
have gone through fire and water, have literally sacrificed everything
that this world counts as good rather than trample on the Cross.
Surely, under the Providence of God, justice will one day be done