Obituary: Dr. Roger Thorpe

CHICAGO, IL (October 7, 2016) – Dr. Roger Thorpe, who served for 30 years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, died this morning. He was 84.

Roger Thorpe received the Paul Carlson Award in 2008 at the ECC Annual Meeting.

Roger Thorpe received the Paul Carlson Award in 2008 at the ECC Annual Meeting.

“Roger was a truly astounding person of exemplary faith, skill, dedication, humility and compassion,” ECC president Gary Walter said this afteroon. “He was a remarkable husband and dad, brilliant physician, and servant-hearted in every relationship and circumstance. He is the rare person who made you want to be a better person just by being with him.”

All of those traits were seen in the multiple instances in which he also exhibited great courage. Roger, along with former executive minister of World Mission Curt Peterson, were nearly killed when they were taken hostage by a militia during an uprising in Kinshasa in 2007. Both barely managed to escape amid the chaos. They shared their story in a Companion article published that year.

Prior to their capture, they had been sheltered in the police station while fighting continued around them. The article noted that, “For Roger, almost as bad as the tension of being under fire was the feeling of helplessness. He wanted to help but had nothing with him—no bandages, no needles, no stethoscope, no sutures. There was nothing he could do to help the wounded. It was a feeling that ate at him as he waited.”

“Our experience in the valley of the shadow of death in Kinshasa in 2007 bonded us as brothers,” Peterson said. “From that day on we greeted each other with comforting hugs, asking ‘How are you doing?’ and sharing recurring dreams of the trauma. We also shared with gratitude the deep awareness of the grace and peace of God during those days. I’m thankful that Roger had nearly a decade more time to love and serve Christ, his family and his beloved Covenant church.”

In 1991, most Covenant missionaries evacuated Zaire, as Congo was called then, due to war. However, Roger and his wife, Eileen, stayed behind to help with a medical transition process before they returned to the United States.

For Roger, almost as bad as the tension of being under fire was the feeling of helplessness. He wanted to help but had nothing with him—no bandages, no needles, no stethoscope, no sutures. There was nothing he could do to help the wounded. It was a feeling that ate at him as he waited.

Fellow missionary Jan Thornbloom said, “Dr. Rog always gave 120 percent of himself to caring for others. He did not think twice if, after a 12- or 14-hour day, he had to return to the hospital for surgery.  His love for his work was reflected in his smile as he finished a successful surgery or held a newborn in his arms.”
In an email, Thornbloom added, “A word that comes to mind when I think of Dr Rog is ‘Always.’ He was Always nearby when he was needed, Always cheerful, Always fun, Always there to help in whatever way he could, just plain ‘Always.'”

He was always teaching. Eileen shared during a chapel service at Covenant Offices how Roger had broken the bone around his eye in a motorcycle accident in 1972. He oversaw his own treatment despite great pain. There was no other doctor so he was treated by two nurses.

“Roger did not want any pain killer because he wanted to give directions as the nurses proceeded—you manage cuts on the eyelid and around the eye differently than other cuts because scarring can make a bad-fitting eyelid,” Eileen said. “So he laid on the OR table with cerebrospinal fluid coming from his nose, sign of a skull fracture, going into shock, and gave instruction on the repair of the skin.”

The Thorpes were called to missionary service in 1965 and began serving in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1966. They served primarily at the Karawa station, where Roger performed an average of two to three surgeries a day along with doing other patient evaluations. Additionally he served as the medical director at the Karawa Hospital, taught at the auxiliary nurses’ school six to ten hours a week, and mentored several Congolese doctors. At one point, he was the only physician serving an area the size of Indiana and Illinois combined.

“His extraordinary skills as a surgeon and tropical medicine physician saved the lives of countless men, women and children,” Peterson recalled. “One of his greatest joys was seeing some of his former students serving with distinction in clinics and hospitals in recent years. Roger was always the teacher, always the encourager.”

The couple retired from missionary service in 1996, and he worked as a part-time physician at Swedish Covenant Hospital.

In 1994, the Thorpes received the Commander of the National Order of Zaire award, which was one of the highest honors given in that country. The couple was named Alumni of the Year at North Park University in 2001 and received the Paul Carlson Award, named for the slain missionary physician, at the 2008 ECC Annual Meeting.

Roger felt the call to missionary service by the time he was in the eighth grade. He decided the summer before starting college that he also wanted to combine that ministry with a medical career.

Roger was born February 19, 1932, in Stephenson, Michigan. He earned an associate’s degree at North Park College and a bachelor of arts at the University of Michigan, where he also graduated from medical school. He studied one year at North Park Seminary.

Roger married Eileen Adell on December 21, 1953.

In addition to Eileen, Roger is survived by two daughters, Christine Olfelt and Dr. Laurie Thorpe; and two sons, Charles Thorpe and Douglas Thorpe.

A memorial service will be conducted at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 11, at North Park Church.

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About the Author

Stan Friedman

Stan Friedman is the news and online editor for the Covenant Companion and is grateful for the opportunity to serve in a job that combines his newspaper and pastoral ministry experience. He has been to 15 Bruce Springsteen concerts in four cities and listened to “Thunder Road” an average of at least once a day for 41 years.

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18 Comments

  1. Deep thanks and praise to God for Roger’s life and testimony! A great and gifted surgeon, Roger humbly treated and served all who came for help. He loved to teach, and many Congolese doctors and nurses, carry on his legacy. I remember him teaching and preaching in chapel and church services. We were blessed and privileged to work and serve with him. Truly an amazing yet totally humble servant of Christ!

  2. Dr. Roger was a true friend, a trusted advisor, and a wonderful example of Christian servanthood. He was a key figure in establishing the Paul Carlson Medical Ambassadors some five years ago. He was the “go-to” person when a medical issue came up in the Congo. I remember calling him when a person accompanying me on a trip to Congo became ill. I called him from the Congo, described the symptoms, and he said “Give him salt, give him salt.” We did and he recovered. We will miss Dr. Roger very much.

  3. Family and Friends of Roger Thorpe,
    I am deeply saddened with the news of Roger’s death.

    We first met at Karawa in the late 1960’s when I traveled with other Swedish Covenant Hospital physicians to participate in the opening of the Paul Carlson Imeloko Hospital program — just a few Kilometers from the Karawa Mission where Roger served as senior physician. Roger’s service and gifts of medical/surgical skills were impressive, beyond measure. Roger’s dedication to his wife, Eileen, and their small children was so apparent as we visited and shared a quiet moment in their mission station home.

    Later, a visit to “clinic” and “surgery” demonstrated Roger’s remarkable competence in the management of complex medical/surgical problems…
    and then, a time for prayer and thanks.

    Roger was a true champion of Christian Faith, of family and of the practice of medicine.

    I am most grateful to Roger Thorpe for his model of faith, family, and friendship. I will miss his soft smile while remembering his selfless service to our Swedish Covenant Hospital and to the mission of the Covenant Church.

    Jim

    J.B.McCormick, M.D.
    Swedish Covenant Hospital Foundation

  4. Sorry to Hear the news — I met him in 2002 in Miami, Florida, when he came in with a Congolese Pastor. He was such a pleasant and wonderful person and a true asset to the Evangelical Covenant.

    He will be missed. The family is in my prayers

  5. Peace to his memory. I would add two more “Always:” Always kind and Always learning. He attended the NPTS symposium on Science and Religion just the week before his passing. He will be missed.

  6. With great sadness I have just read of Rog’s homegoing. He and Eileen came to Congo just about two years after Paul’s death. Paul knew that the Thorpes were coming and was looking forward to having another surgeon in our area. Rog grew up about 20 miles north of where I did in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I had some contact with the Thorpe family in earlier years. My heartfelt sympathy to Eileen and family. Lois Carlson Bridges

  7. It is with a sad heart that we read the news of Roger’s passing. To say he was a uniquely great servant of our Lord doesn’t cover it all. Heaven is richer, but we’re poorer with Roger across the “Jordan.”
    Peace to his memory.

  8. Roger was truly a representative of the good news through his life and healing touch. May God’s work continue through those he mentored and the next generation called to serve.

  9. Members of the CEUM and we as missionaries are so grateful for Roger and Eileen. They are well loved and much appreciated. We have eaten in their home in Congo and in the US, worked and shared together, laughed and cried. Roger’s sudden death is a loss. We are grateful for the hope we have and for which we worked together.
    Keith and Florence

    Dr Justin Gado, the current medical coordinator for the CEUM (Congo Covenant Church) wrote this today:
    Ezali mawa mingi kozua sango oyo. Na kombo ya Oeuvres Medicales ya Ceum mobimba mpe libota na ngai to pesi Covenant pe libota na ye ba condoléances na biso. Tokobosana makambo asala po na service médicale te. Tika Nkolo azua lokumu! Justin Gado

    We receive this news with great sadness. We send our condolences to his family from the whole CEUM medical department and from my own family. We will not forget all that he did for the medical work here. May the Lord be honored. Dr Justin Gado

  10. Together they were a tremendous servant couple. They helped change the lives of many and were good friends to all of us.

  11. What an earthly privilege to have known Roger Thorpe! His footsteps were always returning to the house of the Lord while his paths in between Sundays were marked with love, service, study and sacrifice. Even in his “retirement” he was a missionary on a mission trip. For Roger, in the words of the camp chorus, there was “no turning back, no turning back.” Peace to his memory.
    Doug and Mary Johnson

  12. My deepest sympathy and condolences to Eileen at the loss of her beloved Roger, and to the famly that he loved so well. He was everything that people said about him a dedicated servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. I remember calling him from Spain for a medical problem Jerry had. He solved it, and we were able to continue.

  13. A saintly man, a committed Christian, a loyal Covenanter and a remarkable missionary. God bless the memory of this faithful servant. Craig E Anderson

  14. My heart goes out to the Thorpes. My sister is married to Charles Thorpe We have been through a few rough months. God is holding all of us in his hands.

  15. Words can’t express our deep sense of loss – for a colleague, close friend and mentor. Peace to his memory.
    Leo and Linea Lanoie

    1. Christine thank you for introducing me to you dad and mom nearly 10 years ago. The opportunity to sleep over at their home, early morning coffee on the veranda sun porch. At Covenant gatherings I made it a habit to go looking for the two of them. May God comfort your family. May be glorified by your dad’s legacy. Willie & Anna Marie Peterson

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