YARMOUTH, N.S. – When she was born in North Chegoggin, Nova Scotia, in 1872, no one would have predicted Sarah* Corning would one day be presented as a hero to the King of Greece.
In 1922, Corning was instrumental in the evacuation of Armenian and Greek orphans from the besieged city of Smyrna in what is now Turkey. Today, the extent of the atrocities visited upon the Armenian community after the First World War is acknowledged as an act of genocide.
Corning trained as a nurse in the United States and joined the American Red Cross during the First World War.
In December 1917, she was amongst the first to volunteer to tend the sick and suffering after the Halifax Explosion.
Shortly after the First World War, as part of Near East Relief – an American organization helping displaced people of the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Middle East – Corning went overseas.
In 1921, working for a relief agency, Corning arrived in a small village at the foot of Mount Ararat in what is now Turkey to take charge of an orphanage. The following year she was in the city of Smyrna, which the Turks were trying to take back from Greece. Corning was part of a team that opened a clinic to help Smyrna’s sick and wounded, but it was shut down by Turkish soldiers. A second clinic also was shut down.
In 1922, as fighting and lawlessness escalated, Corning became a central figure in the evacuation of the port city of Smyrna, helping guide orphans in a home run by an American nurse, eventually guiding thousands of children to the harbour, where U.S. sailors rowed them out to the safety of naval vessels, the Vanguard reported this year.
After the rescue, she helped established an orphanage in Greece for the stateless orphans.
She was summoned to Athens in June 1923, where King George II of Greece awarded her and others involved in the rescue mission, the Silver Cross Medal of the Order of the Saviour, an honour comparable to the Order of Canada.
Corning worked at the orphanage until 1924, when she returned to Turkey to work in a residential training school until 1930 when the Near East relief effort was disbanded.
Upon retirement, she returned to Chegoggin, where she lived until her death in 1969 at age 97.
The epitaph on her headstone in the Chegoggin Baptist Church Cemetery reads: "She lived to serve others."
Writer/author Sandra Phinney told the Vanguard earlier in 2016 that Corning’s story pulled at her
“Imagine a rural teenager from Yarmouth in the late 1800s going to the US to become a nurse, then helping out in the Halifax explosion, then being a nurse in a foreign land and doing so much to help people, at great personal risk,” Phinney said.
“Her courage was monumental at many levels, and Canadians need to hear about Sara,” she added.”
Only recently has Corning’s work been recognized at home in Yarmouth County. In September, a seniors’ care home named part of its facility for the nurse from rural Nova Scotia.
“We were intrigued and in awe of her heroic role in rescuing 5,000 Armenian and Greek orphans from near-certain death,” Randy Saulnier, vice-chairman of the Villa Saint-Joseph board said at a ceremony in September.
Corning is recognized elsewhere, too. There is a Sara Corning Centre for Genocide Education in Toronto that supports research and education on the topics of human rights and genocide.
*Corning’s name is spelled both Sarah and Sara in different documents. However, her birth record uses Sarah.
Editor’s note: Material in this article originally appeared on TheVanguard.ca in May 2016 in Local heroine Sara Corning subject of talks at library and historical society, in April 2016 as People urged to vote for Yarmouth First World War nurse Sara Corning to grace currency, by Carla Allen and September 2016’s Sarah Corning remembered and honoured at Villa Saint-Joseph, by Eric Bourque.