Christopher McConnachie, Episcopal Missionary in South Africa, dies at 70

November 27, 2007

Dr. Christopher McConnachie, Episcopal missionary serving in the Transkei region of South Africa, died November 27 in Mthatha (Umtata). He was 70. Chemotherapy for McConnachie's acute myeloid leukemia had compromised his immune system, and he was unable to fight off an infection.

McConnachie and his wife, Jennifer, became missionaries of the Episcopal Church in 1987 and have been serving in the Transkei, Diocese of Umtata, Anglican Church of Southern Africa.

Details regarding funeral arrangements are pending. McConnachie will be buried in Bedford, near the hospital where he served the people of the Transkei.

Born in Stirling, Scotland, McConnachie was a noted Orthopedic Surgeon at Bedford Orthopedic Hospital, near Mthatha. In 1981, he helped establish the African Medical Mission (AMM), based in Hendersonville, North Carolina, which led to his work in South Africa. He and Jennifer, a registered nurse, have lived in South Africa since 1984.

"I have always regarded Chris McConnachie as a heroic figure," said Canon Margaret Larom, director of Anglican and Global Relations. "Calm, gentle, and wise, with that craggy face and marvelous smile, he had a humility that was disarming."

McConnachie performed orthopedic surgeries and treated conditions such as tuberculosis of the spine, polio, congenital defects, and illnesses virtually unknown today in North America or Europe. He was the only board-certified orthopedist in the Transkei and sometimes performed as many as 10 surgeries in one day. He also visited outlying hospitals, regularly treating more than 150 outpatients in a week. Diagnosed with leukemia in early 2006, McConnachie was a compassionate fighter who worked throughout his illness.

"When I first heard him speak, nearly 20 years ago, I got my first glimpse of the enormous task he faced as the only orthopedic surgeon available for thousands of people," Larom said. "I asked him to speak at our parish, and a nurse in our congregation was so inspired that she volunteered as a missionary soon afterwards. Visits by Chris and his beautiful, sweet Jenny were high points of life at the Episcopal Church Center, as I'm sure they were everywhere. My heart breaks at the thought that he is gone, but I give thanks to God for the privilege of knowing him, and sing praises for the unstinting and loving service he gave to the people of South Africa."

McConnachie was the winner of the 2002 American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Humanitarian Award. In 2006, he and Jennifer were named "Officers of the Order of the British Empire" (OBE) in recognition of their long and valuable service in Africa. The nominations process included letters of recommendation, one of which came from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The couple traveled to England to accept their awards from Prince Charles.

"Helen Keller once said, 'The best and most beautiful things cannot be seen or touched, they must be felt with the heart.' The life and ministry of Dr. Christopher McConnachie was a constant reflection of the love of God, which shone out through his work as a surgeon and his personality as a loving and caring child of God. He will be missed by all who had the privilege to meet him," said the Rev. David Copley, the Episcopal Church's mission personnel officer.

Jesse Zink, an Episcopal Church Young Adult Service Corps who works at the Itipini Medical Clinic in Mthatha, South Africa, said he admires the tremendous impact McConnachie has had on orthopedic medical care in the region. "Not many people leave successful careers in the United States and move to one of the poorest parts of South Africa and then stay there for the rest of their lives," he wrote on his blog. "He set an amazing model for many people, including me."

McConnachie is survived by his wife, Jennifer, seven children, and 14 grandchildren.

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