Writing Life: From a backyard owl to an American colony in Jerusalem

Featured photo of owl from US Library of Congress; American Colony in Jerusalem; 1900-1920

You never know what you’ll find when you go sleuthing for information. I learned some things today and ended up grabbing some soul balm to boot. Who knew a simple backyard owl experience could introduce me to the American Colony in Jerusalem?

Who knew there ever was an American Colony in Jerusalem? I found a riveting story because I searched for an owl photo to go with my video.

I was out back in my sanctuary as the clock approached midnight. I kept hearing the owl call, and I thought it’d be great to get it on video because then I could let my granddaughter hear a bird she and I have talked about since she could talk. There’s no video; just audio.

I realized I needed a good photo of an owl. I headed to the US Library of Congress and there I found an excellent photo dating to the early 1900s. The photo is part of the G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection.

What caught my eye, besides the excellent photo, is the credit: “American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Department, photographer.”

An American Colony in Jerusalem? Thing is, this wasn’t an imperialist-founded colony.

The American Colony in Jerusalem was founded because of a personal tragedy, with one family perhaps seeking solace in the holy city after horrific tragedies.

Horatio and Anna Spafford were living in Chicago and were well to do. Mr. Spafford was an attorney. They had four daughters. In November, 1873 they planned a trip to Europe. Mrs. Spafford would travel with their daughters by ship and her husband would meet them later.

Shortly after Mrs. Spafford and her daughters set sail, disaster struck. A British ship rammed the ship she and her daughters traveled on. All four of the girls perished at sea. Several years later, the couple’s son died in Chicago, and the Great Chicago Fire erased much of the Staffords’ real estate wealth.

That’s enough tragedy to say grace over. The LOC provides a narrative about the Spaffords, recounting their role in establishing the American Colony in Jerusalem, and a gift Mr. Spafford gave to Christians around the world. As he traveled to meet his wife in the aftermath of their daughters’ deaths, Mr. Spafford’s ship passed over the spot where the ship had been rammed. He wrote one of the most beautiful hymns in the English language, “It Is Well with my Soul” as he “passed over their watery grave.”

Next time I’m feeling down, I’ll try to remember the Spaffords’ story and the beautiful hymn rising from tragedy.

The American Colony in Jerusalem was an intact entity until the 1940s when Germany unglued the world with horrific acts of aggression. The colony left behind another gift—a treasure trove of photographs taken in Jerusalem while the colony existed.

When I searched for a photo of an owl, I had no idea I’d run into such an intriguing story. Owls are among my favorite raptors, and stories about them were passed along to me by many of the elders in my family. My grandmother’s generation perceived owls as a “token” something bad would happen. My mother likes to say when she hears an owl, it means someone will die.

I told my mom recently if someone died every time I heard an owl hoot in my Florida backyard, there’d be bodies all over the place. Owls are good birds and they’re very important to our environment.

I did get some nice audio of my owl. At the end of the audio, edited for upload compatibility, you’ll hear me tell the owl to go eat some Cuban…

Frogs. That’s the keyword missing from my request to Mrs. Owl.



Featured photo of owl from US Library of Congress; American Colony in Jerusalem; 1900-1920

Video of hymn “All Is Well with my Soul” from YouTube; Gaither Music TV; David Phelps and Guy Penrod.

Audio of owl hooting shot in late October, 2020 in Northeast Florida.

(Kay B. Day/November 4, 2020)

CD by Nancy Wilson Buckler
CD by Nancy Wilson Buckler


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