The OPC’s First Martyr: Anna Strikwerda

Danny E. Olinger

New Horizons: May 2024

Anna Strikwerda

Also in this issue

The Call to Missions

On the morning of May 27, 1974, freedom fighters looking for hostages entered the Orthodox Presbyterian Church-operated Mihireta Yesus Hospital (“Compassion of Jesus” Hospital) in Ghinda, Eritrea. Nurse anesthetist Anna Strikwerda, already prepped for that day’s surgeries with mask, green operating gown, and stethoscope, was confronted at gunpoint. In the midst of terrified hospital staff, she exclaimed, “I’m not afraid; I’ll go with them.” Led outside by four men armed with machine guns, Anna saw another hostage that the soldiers had captured coming out of the hospital door, nurse Debbie Dortzbach. Anna said, “Don’t be afraid, Debbie. The Lord is with us.”

Yelling at Anna and Debbie to hurry, the mercenaries hit the two women in the back with sticks. The women grabbed hands as they descended a bank behind the building and saw other armed men waiting for them, which caused Anna to cry out, “O Lord, help us!”

The men drove Anna and Debbie as if they were animals through the brush and mountainous terrain, screaming at them “Keedee! Keedee!” (“Go! Go!”). Anna might have been outfitted for surgery, but not for the forced march. She struggled to keep up, her single-strap sandals not suited for being marched at gunpoint through the rugged Eritrean terrain, at a 4,000-foot elevation, in 104-degree heat. Bending down to put her sandal back on her foot, she was shot and executed. In trust of the living God, Anna had finished the course and entered into the presence of Christ to whom she had willingly given her life.

Fifty years later, there are still numerous Orthodox Presbyterian congregations that display on their walls the memorial passed by the Committee on Foreign Missions sixteen days later on June 12, 1974. Signed by committee president Richard B. Gaffin Jr. and general secretary John P. Galbraith, the declaration gives thanks to God for the faith and life of Anna Strikwerda, handmaiden of the Lord and the first martyr of foreign missionary work in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

The Netherlands

Born on September 7, 1921, in Winsum (Friesland), the Netherlands, Anna was the sixth of fourteen children born to believing parents who were members of the Christian Reformed Church of the Netherlands. The poverty that her family experienced in the 1930s forced her and her older siblings to grow up quickly. She explained, “It was impossible for me as well as for my older brothers and sisters to go to high school. We all had to earn our own living.” At the age of fourteen, Anna went to work as a domestic, first for a doctor and his family, and then for a minister and his family. What Anna heard and saw working for these families encouraged her to pursue education, but then World War II came and there was no opportunity to do so. Once the war finished, Anna entered nursing school with the goal of serving in a missionary hospital in the Netherland East Indies, but Indonesia gained self-determination and the hospital closed. She continued on to graduate school and then worked seven years at a district hospital in the Netherlands before deciding to go to Australia. There she joined the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Hobart, Tasmania, and heard of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and its need for nurses in Eritrea. She said, “Through the years I had the desire to do something for the people in undeveloped countries and to work amongst people who lack the care they so very much need.” Her heart was set on serving in such a manner. She later testified, after she had been received into the OPC mission at Ghinda, “It was the only thing that I could do.”


Although Anna’s appointment was announced to OPC members in December 1962, it would not be until January 1966 that she arrived on the field. The Committee on Foreign Missions (CFM) proceeded cautiously in expanding the mission. Part of the delay was the political situation in Eritrea. In 1962 Eritrea ceased to be a separate state federated with Ethiopia. It was now included in the Ethiopian empire as the northernmost province. This led to the mission having to negotiate with the new government in Addis Ababa about the mission’s right to exist in Eritrea, much less getting permission to build a hospital. Part of the delay was also the committee’s desire to remain true to its stated purpose in missions. The committee reported that “we must be careful not to place such emphasis on our medical work that the main task to which we are committed and for which we went to Eritrea, namely, the preaching of the gospel so that the church of Jesus Christ may be built in that land, will be either neglected or ultimately lost sight of.”

On February 5, 1966, Mihireta Yesus Hospital was completed and dedicated. The rhythm of her first year had Anna working two months in the hospital, often seeing and caring for fifty-plus individuals a day. That would be followed by two months of intensive language study, although she was often called in for emergency duty and to help with maternity cases. In 1968, the work intensified for Anna and fellow nurse Yvonne DeBlaey when Dr. Lyle Nilson and his family had to leave the mission. Dr. Nilson’s wife, Mary, and daughter had developed an intolerance to antimalarial drugs, which put them at great medical risk since Ghinda was in a malarial area. Dr. John Den Hartog and family were already on furlough, which meant that Anna and Yvonne had to do everything. And yet, the nurses kept the hospital running at an amazing level. Mihireta Yesus that year admitted 434 patients, delivered 67 babies (Anna delivered 29 herself), and made 15,988 outpatient visits.

In the midst of such work, Anna led morning devotions with the staff, continued in her language study, and helped with teaching a Bible class for boys and girls.

Anna and Omar

Although the mission was greatly enhanced by the arrival of Dr. Grietje Rietkerk at the end of 1969, the political unrest in Eritrea escalated in the 1970s. The Eritrean Liberation Front, seeking independence from Ethiopia, began raiding villages, taking supplies, destroying crops, and leaving orphans in its wake. Omar Mohammed, seven years old yet so malnourished that he weighed only fifteen pounds, was one such orphan brought to the hospital. Anna realized that he was not only physically starved, but also devoid of love. She became “Mother” to him, letting him eat meals with her, providing a place for him to sleep (a little box that served as a playpen during the day), and sharing with him the news of the love of Jesus.

Anna’s goal was to adopt Omar, but when she asked one of the Muslim workers at the hospital if the government would allow her to do so, he answered, “Never would they give him to you.” Still, Anna was determined not to give up. She said, “How, we do not know yet, but the Lord will show us and make it possible.”

After Anna’s brutal murder, a funeral service was held for her at Mihireta Yesus Hospital. The entire community gathered around the compound to pay their respects to the woman who had treated them so kindly and cared for them in the name of Christ. OPC minister and missionary Arthur Steltzer preached the sermon to an estimated two thousand Christians and Muslims present, including Omar. When asked why he wasn’t crying for the loss of his “mother,” Omar replied, “Yes, I am sad, but don’t cry. Today is my mother’s festival. She is rejoicing in heaven.” After the funeral, elder Haleqa Kifle and his wife added Omar to their family.

In early 1975, civil war became a reality in Eritrea. The breakdown of public order—local assassinations and exploding land mines—eventually spread to Ghinda, and it became clear in early March 1976 that the missionaries would have to flee for their safety. Even then, an army colonel refused to allow the missionaries a road permit to travel until Dr. Rietkerk handed over the keys to the hospital. After thirty-one years of continuous labor in Eritrea, the mission was closed.

OPC Foreign Missions

After thirty years of armed combat, Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991. The next year, CFM representatives visited Eritrea, and the mission was soon reopened. By 2007, though, persecution of Christians had escalated and reached the OPC mission and the Asmara congregation.

Although it has been sixteen years since Orthodox Presbyterian missionaries have been in Eritrea, the CFM asks us to pray that the Lord would reopen Eritrea as a fully functional mission field. And in that light, it is fitting that OPC congregations still give praise to God for the labors of Anna Strikwerda and her gospel heart for the people of Eritrea. As Tertullian rightfully remarked, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

The author is editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, May 2024.

New Horizons: May 2024

Anna Strikwerda

Also in this issue

The Call to Missions

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