Educator, Missionary (1913–2005)
Mary C. Thompson was a career missionary of the Presbyterian Church, the academic dean of a women’s college in Iran, a trustee of New York Theological Seminary, and a 23-year member of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, where she served as a Deacon and Elder, taught Sunday School and Adult Education classes, and kept the needs of Christians in the Middle East ever before our minds and hearts.
Mary was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania. She studied psychology and Latin at Muskingum College in Ohio and worked for two years as a social worker in eastern Tennessee during the Depression. She then moved to New York to study for a year at the Biblical Seminary (now New York Theological).
Her passion for teaching intersected with her deep faith when she moved to Egypt in 1939 to teach at the El Salaam school in Tanta as a Presbyterian missionary. Her early years there were marked by the onset of war in North Africa. She recalled frightening times when they rushed the boarding students into the basement when air raid sirens warned of an imminent attack.
Mary had been fascinated by Egypt since her childhood, and she had great respect for the diverse religions and cultures she encountered there. Although El Salaam was run by the Presbyterian Church, many Muslim students were enrolled, and the staff made sure they could practice their own religious traditions. Mary also understood that local people should lead local schools. The goal of the American educators there was to work themselves out of a job by training Egyptians to take their place. On a return trip to Egypt in 1996, Mary was gratified to see that all the Presbyterian schools had continued to prosper under Egyptian leadership.
This is a sore place in the world. These people hurt as others hurt, they need as others need, they once had hope of justice.—Mary C. Thompson
Mary remained in Tanta for 25 years, eventually serving as principal of the school. During a furlough in the United States in 1962, she joined Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. She struck up a regular correspondence with Senior Pastor Bryant Kirkland that continued for more than 15 years. In a poignant letter in 1967, she appealed for Dr. Kirkland’s support of a Sunday collection for Arab refugees. “This is a sore place in the world,” she wrote. “These people hurt as others hurt, they need as others need, they once had hope of justice.”
During her final decade in the Middle East (1968–1978), Mary worked as a consultant to the Evangelical Church in Iran and as academic dean of Damavand College in Tehran, a women’s college where Presbyterian missionaries has served for more than a century. After her retirement, she returned to New York, became active at Fifth Avenue and continued to recruit candidates for overseas service on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
In 1996 Mary and I spent two weeks in Egypt, touring the pyramids and temples, and visiting the various educational sites that Fifth Avenue had assisted financially, including Cairo Theological Seminary and El Salaam school, where Mary worked for so many years. In 1997 we traveled to Morocco, fulfilling Mary’s desire to see the only part of the old Ottoman Empire she had never visited.
In a tribute to Mary just before her departure from the Middle East, a colleague remarked that, in her long career as a missionary, Mary had truly answered the question posed by Psalm 137: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” “Remember,” Mary responded, “no land is a strange land if you’re singing the Lord’s song.”
About the Writer
Debbie Mullins has been a member of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church since 1980. Shortly after joining the church, she met Mary Thompson in a class about the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. Mary encouraged her to become active in the church, and the two remained close friends until her death. A five-time Elder and chair of the Mustard Seed Commission, Debbie received the Kenneth O. Jones Distinguished Service Award in 2013.