Paulette Houbouyan-Coutant

BOSTON — Dr. Paulette Houbouyan-Coutant, of Paris, will discuss the strategies and evolution of the 19th century French mission schools for Armenian girls and women in the Ottoman empire at a program on Sunday, October 22, at 2:30 p.m. at the Armenian Cultural Foundation in Arlington.

Established initially in 1840 in the larger cities, such as Constantinople and Smyrna, these mission schools rapidly spread to the smaller cities and towns in the Armenian plateau, ranging from Marsovan and Amasia in the north to Sivas and Kharpert in the central plains to Urfa and Adana in the south.

Dr. Houbouyan-Coutant will describe the nuns from convents in France who volunteered to serve in the Middle East, the life and customs they encountered, the challenges they faced in setting up and operating their schools, as well as the broader effects of a French Catholic education for girls in the midst of the rapid economic, social and cultural transformations taking place in Ottoman Turkey during those years.

Beginning with a few nuns from the French Sisters of Charity, who arrived in the Ottoman capital in 1839 to establish a school there, the movement to provide a French Catholic education to Armenian girls and women was augmented by recruits from several other societies in France, such as the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, who traveled to Erzurum, Trebizond and Samsun, and the Franciscans of Lors-le-Saunier, who went to Mardin, Diyarbakir, and Urfa.

French mission work among the Armenians in Turkey is viewed by Houbouyan-Coutant within the larger context of the spread and popularity of French culture generally throughout the Ottoman Empire in those years. The schools for girls and women are also described as a response to, as well as competition with, the considerable American Protestant presence in mission stations throughout Turkey in those years. It was the minority populations in Ottoman Turkey, and mainly the Armenians, who were attracted to mission education.

Despite the widespread network of French mission schools for girls, the number of Catholic Armenian women in Ottoman Turkey remained low (an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the population), and most of them were from established Armenian Catholic families. Notable was the formation in Angora in 1857 of a new congregation, the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, which spread to many other areas and provided teachers to assist in the classrooms.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

With the massacres of the Armenians in 1894-1896, and then in Adana in 1908, both French and American missions responded to the great need for orphanages, which housed Armenian children of Apostolic, Catholic and Protestant faiths.

The 20th century saw the increase of forces threatening mission schools in Turkey: first, Ottoman censorship, which affected not only newspapers and correspondence but was applied to textbooks and educational material (even purely religious texts); second, the emigration of the Armenians, facing difficult living conditions, to the United States as well as to Russia; and third, the rising tide of Armenian nationalism, which fostered opposition to foreign educational institutions. The 1908 Revolution offered a brief respite to these trends, but the outbreak of World War I between France and Turkey in October 1914 marked the end of these missions, with French nationals rudely and abruptly expelled from the country.

Students at the French mission school in Urfa, in 1904

Houbouyan-Coutant, the daughter of Armenian Catholic Genocide survivors from Angora, Turkey, was born and educated in Paris, receiving her doctorate from the School for Study in the Advanced Sciences (EHESS ) in France. The results of her extensive research in 19th century Ottoman history and French missions can be found in her book, published in French and titled Armenian Women in the Ottoman Empire at French Schools (1840- 1915): Missionary Strategies and Changes in a Traditional Society. Active for many years in educational cooperation between France and Armenia, she chairs the Amitié et Echanges Franco-Arméniens association, which offers scholarships to students at the University of Ijevan, in Tavush, Armenia.

The program “Competing Cultures: French Mission Schools and The Education of Ottoman Armenian Women (1840-1915)” is open to the public free of charge and is sponsored jointly by the New England Affiliate and the Publications Committee of the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA). Barbara Merguerian, who has made a study 19th century American Protestant mission schools for Armenian girls in Ottoman Turkey, will introduce the speaker.

Additional information about the October 22 event program or about AIWA’s programs to unite and advance the interests of Armenia women can be found by contacting


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: