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Minnesota missionary won the hearts and minds of Sierra Leoneans

Lowell and Ruth Gess first stepped on African soil in 1952 when the Board of Missions of the Evangelical Church, one of the churches that would merge to become The United Methodist Church, stationed them at Bambur, Nigeria.

Dr. Lowell Gess

Dr. Lowell Gess

After serving three years there, the Gesses were sent to Sierra Leone, an assignment that continued for 18 years as commissioned missionaries and another 34 years as volunteers.  His first assignment was at Rotifunk, then on to Taiama, and their final commissioned assignment at Bo – all in southern Sierra Leone. They formally retired from commissioned missionary service in 1975.

Before full missionary service, Gess was a pastor. He served churches in the United States as he continued with his medical education. When he arrived for his first years of service in Africa, he was trained as a general medical doctor and general surgeon.

It was this calling that took him to Rotifunk. It was at Rotifunk , although tremendously busy with general health care and surgery, that he realized the great need for eye surgery, especially cataract removal and surgery for glaucoma.  He began a self-training program that allowed him to begin eye surgery there.

The Board of Missions assisted Gess by allowing a three-year leave in which he served a residency in ophthalmology that prepared him to return to Sierra Leone. The eye-care program was carried on during his years of service at Taiama, where he sometimes would do several types of general surgery interspersed with eye surgeries all in the same day. The final appointment for the Gesses was at Bo, where they served until they retired and returned to Minnesota to begin a private ophthalmology practice.

But the Gesses could not forget the continuing great need for eye surgery in Sierra Leone, the country they had grown to love and call their second homes. As volunteers they founded the Kissy UMC Eye Hospital in Freetown in 1976. The temporary facilities for the Kissy Eye Hospital were in the Urban Centre building next door.

The Gesses realized that if they were to provide the comprehensive eye program necessary, new facilities would be required. A building was planned and construction began with $70,000 provided by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. 

Through using his skills to restore sight to thousands of patients, Gess says he found great joy, but his greatest joy was helping those patients gain insight into the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Throughout his missionary surgical career in which he has done more than 16,000 cataract surgeries, not to count all of the other procedures including general surgeries, and treatments for injuries, illnesses and other eye conditions, he has prayed for each of those patients, prayers that asked for their physical sight to be maintained or enriched and, more importantly, that they would come to know Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. The place of prayer in all of this, Gess says, must not be minimized.

At 90, Gess was honored and The Kissy Eye Hospital renamed the Lowell and Ruth Gess Eye Hospital. Though he could not attend the Freetown ceremony, Gesshad these words to say in a video message to the church:

“Ruth and I loved Sierra Leone. It was a joy to preach the gospel, speaking on behalf of the Lord Jesus Christ.  I was happy to practice medicine, do surgeries that were life-saving and sight-restoring. Especially meaningful to me are scriptures such as Luke 4:18 and 19: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to pray and proclaim freedom to the prisoners and recover sight to the blind, to release the oppressed. To proclaim the year of the Lord’ and 2 Corinthians 4:5 ‘We preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus. We are servants for Jesus sake.’”