These days, an anniversary was celebrated that would not exist without numerous committed and courageous women.
Bitola, today the third largest city of North Macedonia, is located in the very south of the country. Already 150 years ago, the location of this city and its connection to Thessaloniki was considered to be of great strategic importance – also by Church authorities who were considering establishing a presence in what was then called European Turkey. And so, it was Bitola, at that time still named Monastir, where the first mission station of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was established on October 17, 1873. And since this board entrusted its work throughout the country to the Methodist Church in 1922, the date in October 1873 can well be considered the birth of The United Methodist Church (UMC)in North Macedonia.
Soon, the work expanded, and other mission stations were added in Resen, Prilep, Voden, Kavadarci, Veles, Skopje, Priština, Radoviš, Rakliš, Strumica, Murtino, Monospitovo and later Kolešino. A look at the 10 local churches of the UMC in North Macedonia today makes it clear that more than half of them have their roots in these missionary beginnings.
The first missionaries in Monastir had recognized that the population could be helped primarily through education. Therefore, they opened schools and an orphanage. The fact that first a girls' school and only later also a boys' school was founded was unusual for the time and the cultural context. But those responsible had an inkling that enabling a girl or young woman to receive an education would have beneficial effects on an entire generation beyond the individual person.
And it was above all women who decisively shaped these Methodist beginnings in North Macedonia. First the wives of the US missionaries sent to Monastir, later missionaries from the USA, Germany, and Switzerland. Finally, however, there were more and more local women who, despite all difficulties, visited remote villages as "Bible women" and did not let open hostilities stop them from passing on the gospel in words and deeds.
This connection between faith and action was also evident in many ways in Monastir. In addition to the educational opportunities offered by the ever-growing girls' school, the women in Monastir also took care of the medical needs of the population. And when unrest and wars caused untold suffering, it was the housemothers in the boarding school and the orphanage, who took in refugees regardless of their nationality - and who provided the population with basic foodstuffs.
One of these missionaries was the Swiss Methodist Martha Gisler (1872-1955). She was a music teacher at the Methodist school in Lovetsch (in present-day Bulgaria). There she met William Paine Clarke, a son of a missionary couple who were part of the first generation of missionaries sent to Bulgaria. After the two were married in Basel (Switzerland) in 1900, they served in Monastir for 12 years (1904-1916). Martha Gisler also gave music lessons in Monastir, but was mainly responsible for social welfare. She provided food to the hungry and helped especially mothers with babies and small children. She practiced "industrial relief work", a kind of help for self-help. To do this, she obtained materials for women to make clothing or other items for their own use and for sale. When her supplies ran out during the war in 1916, she was supplied with materials by the Bulgarian Queen Eleonora, who was very supportive of the missionaries. Martha Gisler was a housemother for a number of years to the orphans who lived in the "Essery Memorial" orphanage built on the mission grounds in 1903. Unfortunately, the Gisler Clarke family was expelled by the new powers in December 1916 and could not continue their beneficial work.
The courageous women helped countless people and, through their pioneering work, contributed significantly to the emergence and expansion of the UMC in North Macedonia. And it is certainly no coincidence that the Miss Stone Center in Strumica, which has been providing survival assistance and hope to over 200 people in the spirit of the pioneering women for over 20 years, bears the name of one of the missionaries.
The UMC in North Macedonia would be different without all these women. Celebrating the anniversary also means remembering them. Because perhaps without these women, the church would simply not exist today.
Source: Urs Schweizer, Zurich – based on a report by Christina Cekov, Strumica
Photo: School and boarding school in Bitola/Monastir (top) - Work of the Miss Stone Center in Strumica (bottom right)