In 1904 Elizabeth DePree founded a medical clinic in Muttrah, launching the Reformed Church’s medical work in Oman. In 1909, the Reformed Church recruited and sent its first general surgeon, Dr. Sharon Thoms, to Oman. The Thoms family name is still remembered in Muscat today with great admiration.
In the year 1910 Dr. Sharon Thoms consulted and treated 10,000 patients. Tuberculosis, malaria, pneumonia, intestinal obstructions, the eye disease trachoma, and even camel bites and fishing accidents were among the diseases and ailments treated by Thoms that year. With the approval of the Sultan, Sharon Thoms chose the future site of the general hospital, later known as Al Rahma (Mercy) hospital in the town of Muttrah, colloquially called Mustashfa Thomas (Thoms’ hospital).
In 1928 Dr. Paul Harrison arrived in Oman to become the new head surgeon and director of the American Mission hospitals, a post which he served for eleven years until 1939. Dr. Harrison, an honors graduate from John Hopkins University Medical School presided over the construction of the new Al Rahma Hospital, completed in 1933.
The Reformed Church’s policy from the beginning was to employ Omanis in the work of the hospitals and school. Omanis were educated and trained as doctors, laboratory technicians, nurses and hospital administrators.
In 1939, Dr. Wells Thoms, the son of Dr. Sharon Thoms, arrived in Oman to replace Dr. Harrison as the head surgeon and director of the hospitals. To this day the people of Oman, whether from Muscat or the interior of the country, retell stories passed down to them by their parents and grandparents about Dr. Wells Thoms who served the Omani people for 31 years until his retirement in 1970.
Dr. Wells Thoms was the first American doctor to serve in Oman who had grown up in the country. He was a childhood friend of Sultan Said Bin Taimur Al Busaidi, the father of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. Under Dr. Wells Thoms’ leadership the American hospitals of Muttrah and Muscat added buildings and medical specialties and grew in size and stature so that by the 1960s the American hospitals were the single largest private employer in Oman, and the second largest employer after the Omani Royal Army. In 1960 the hospitals handled 90,000 medical cases.
Dr. Don and Eloise Bosch arrived in Oman in 1955. Dr. Bosch served as the director of the hospitals and later as a consultant to the development of Oman’s government health ministry until his retirement in 1985. Eloise Bosch served as a teacher at the Al Amana School. In the 1960’s Sultan Qaboos’ mother grew gravely ill. Dr. and Mrs. Bosch renovated the first floor of their home to create a private room for the Queen and personally tended to His Majesty’s mother in her weeks of illness restoring her to heath.
In the early 1970s Oman, along with neighboring countries of the Gulf, experienced rapid development funded by new wealth from oil revenue. Since Oman could now fund the hospital itself, His Majesty and the leaders of the Reformed Church in America met to discuss the transfer of the American hospitals in Muscat and Muttrah to the Sultan’s new Health Ministry. In 1973 the transfer was complete, concluding a nearly 70-year gift of health services from the Reformed Church in America to the people of Oman.
The most recent episode in the century-long relationship between the Reformed Church in America and the Sultanate of Oman came in 1987 after the closing of the Al Amana School, the American school in Muscat. In response to growing polemic attitudes in the US and Europe toward Islam in general and the Arab world in particular, the Reformed Church in America established an academic inter-faith center in Muscat. The purpose was to educate a broad cross-section of Christians in the US and Europe about Islam and Arab culture in the hope of fostering deeper mutual understanding and peace between West and East. The Al Amana Centre for interfaith understanding was established with the approval and blessing of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos.
Over the past 120 years the benefits of the US-Omani friendship have been mutual, making significant contributions to each other’s societies and the world. The Reformed Church workers talk of having gained more from their friendships with Omanis than they were ever able to give, and of their appreciation for an enriched theological perspective.
Midge Kapenga, a teacher in the American School, reflected on her years in Oman, “..Our Ibadhi Muslim friends from Oman were quiet, dignified, exceedingly polite, strict as to morals and independent…” The Reformed Church Christians working in Oman over the years noted ethics held in common between the two traditions, such as the high value placed on academic and scholarly approaches to religion, an ecumenical approach to other schools of thought within the religion, the high regard for personal piety, a commitment to improving the lives of the poor and oppressed of society, and a regard for the inclusion of other religions in the maintenance of a pluralist society.
The governments, the people and the ecumenical and mainline Christian institutions of Oman, Europe and the United States are well positioned to continue demonstrating to the world the peace and prosperity that grows from mutual understanding, trust and friendship. The love between friends is not a benign love; it is a costly love which demands justice and autonomy of the other. We are the ones who must make sure that the guiding principal of mutual suspicion so prevalent in the world today is superseded by the costly love of mutual learning, bearing with one another in our moments of misunderstanding, believing always in the potential for the lasting peace which God intends between the many nations, creeds and peoples that God has created.