Volume 7, Number 4

November 2011

Download pdf

Table of Contents


Contact Information

Susannah Beamish-Strachan:

From Cork to Costa Rica (1874-1950)

A Biography by Conrad Hicks   *

Rev. Conrad Hicks is Superintendent Minister of the Dublin North Methodist Circuit and Companion of the Methodist Churches in Britain and Ireland to the Methodist Church in Guatemala, in preparation for which role he spent two months of 2009 at the Latin American Bible University, San José, Costa Rica.

A large, beautifully carved statue of an indigenous woman reading the Bible sits proudly in the entrance hall of the Latin American Bible University (Universidad Biblia Latinoamérica) in San José, Costa Rica. The ethos of the university is to teach theology from the perspective of Women, the Indigenous and the Poor. It offers courses in pastoral and biblical theology to students who come from across Latin America and some even from Africa and Europe. Ecumenical in outlook, a Protestant can be preparing for ordination alongside a Catholic Religious studying for her Masters.

 Passing the statue and taking the stairs leads one to the Henry Strachan Library, a theological resource centre that also serves the satellite colleges which the Bible University has across Latin America. The library is named after the University’s co-founder, whose benign black and white picture smiles down from the library walls next to that of his co-founder and wife, Susannah Strachan (née Beamish).

Susannah Beamish was born near Dunmanway, Co. Cork on 28 April 1874. Although her family attended the local Anglican (Church of Ireland) church, Susannah started to attend the small Methodist congregation nearby in her youth. Having made a commitment to Christ at the Methodist church, she worshipped with her family at the Anglican church in the mornings, and she attended the Methodist church in the evenings (Smith 2001:71), She left Ireland to study at the East London Training Institute for Home and Foreign Mission established in Harley House, Bow Road, and then at Hulme Cliff College, Derbyshire. In these Evangelical Protestant training colleges she met her future husband, Henry Strachan (1872-1945). Henry was born in Fergus, Ontario, to Scottish parents, who returned from Canada to Aberdeen when Henry was seven years old. Later, in response to the sternness of his father, the young Henry Strachan ran away from home to England. There, at about the age of twenty he heard the preaching of the Irishman, Henry Grattan Guinness (1835-1910), which had a profound impact upon him. He, too, studied at Harley House and Hulme Cliff College where he and Susannah had separately planned to serve in Central Africa as missionaries in Guinness’s ‘Congo Balolo Mission’. To this end, Henry Strachan was studying medicine and Susannah Beamish was studying nursing. During this time, Henry proposed to Susannah only to be turned down. She also informed him that she was disqualified for health reasons from service in the Central African climate and was being sent instead to Argentina by the Regions Beyond Missionary Union. Henry seemed to accept that they were not to be wed, until he too, because of a congenital heart problem, was disqualified from service in the Congo and redirected to Argentina under the Regions Beyond Missionary Union (Smith 2001:72).

In 1899, at the age of twenty five, Susannah Beamish set sail for Argentina. Three years later, Henry Strachan joined her, and on 15 June 1903 they married. They settled in Tandil, in the south west of Buenos Aires province, where they established a church and where their three children were born: Kenneth, Grace and Harry. The couple lived in Tandil for the next fifteen years, where Susannah founded both the ‘League of Evangelical Women’ (Liga de Mujeres Evangélicas) and the newspaper, Guía del Hogar. It was during this period that the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference took place. This Conference largely sidestepped the possibility of Protestant mission work in Latin America. This led to the subsequent 1916 Panama Congress on Christian work in Latin America. During these years, the Strachans began to think of a continent-wide mission work, and became members of ‘The Evangelical Union of South America’, founded in Keswick, England in 1911. Those to whom they were responsible in Argentina and Britain were not in a position to support the Strachans's vision of a continent-wide mission. Dr. Henry Guinness had died, leaving debts of £10,000.

In 1918, Henry and Susannah Strachan travelled to the United States in what turned out to be a largely unfruitful bid to gain financial support for a Latin American-wide mission. Nonetheless, Henry did serve for a while at Hepzibah House, New York, where the evangelist A. B. Winchester (1815-1943) was based. Winchester, who alone provided the Strachans with some financial help, was a Canadian who played a significant role in the creation of the fundamentalist movement. At this time, they disaffiliated themselves from the Evangelical Union of South America, and, in 1920, the couple began a year-long tour of Southern and Central America, from Guatemala back to Argentina. It was after much soul-searching that Susannah embarked on the trip, leaving their three children in the care of three families in Kansas City Missouri (Smith 2001:75). This tour took them to many and varied places, including San José in Costa Rica. It was in San José that they felt that they had found an ideal location to launch a continent-wide mission, as it had railway links to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the former completed late in the nineteenth century, the latter in 1910. On 24 July, 1921, with a group of interested friends, they founded the ‘Latin American Evangelisation Campaign’ (LAEC) at Stony Brook School, New York. Within four months, the family had settled in San José, and the work was divided between husband and wife, Susannah taking responsibility for building up the base of the work in and around San José whilst her husband left, in the company of Juan Varetto, to initiate the continent-wide evangelisation campaign. Henry’s first tour, to Guatemala, began within days of the family’s arrival in San José. Henry left Susannah to unpack, and left her with US$100 plus a cheque which he had forgotten to endorse (Smith 2001:77). She seems to have coped admirably with caring for both the family home and the establishment of the work in San José.

The Latin American Evangelisation Campaign (now Latin American Mission) used the leading evangelical preachers of the day to address campaigns that were held in the majority of Latin American countries during the next fourteen years. Henry Strachan became known as ‘El Caballero Andante de América Latina’.

Back in San José, Susannah Strachan founded the Escuela de Capacitación para Mujeres Jóvenes (School for the Training of Young Women), now the Universidad Biblia Latinoamérica, on 2 October, 1922. The first students, all of whom were from Central America, were: Olivia Rodríguez, Angela Santamaría, Concha Escobar, Piedades Gómez, Betty Campos, María Pineda, Isabel Zúñiga and Fanny Hogg. In 1923, it became known as the Instituto Bíblico de Costa Rica and then in 1941 as Seminario Bíblico Latinoamericano. Susannah insisted that the first students were women. She offered a two-year programme of instruction on courses on the Old and New Testaments, Christian Doctrine, Bible History, Homiletics, “Dispensational Truth, organ and singing, sewing and housework as well as practical evangelistic work” (Smith 2001:89, quoting S. Strachan 1923:a:7).  Men did not enter the institute for another two years.  Once it was recognised that Henry’s plans for the training of male pastors in situ., through programmes linked to his itinerant missions, was not going to work, Henry wrote to Susannah from Nicaragua asking her if she could accommodate ten male students (Smith 2001:95). She could but  the first graduation in 1926 was all female. Each weekend, students were sent out from the institute to evangelise and organise within the barrios of San José and within communities across the different regions of Costa Rica. In Santa Cruz, as a result of this work, the first ‘Bible Church’ was later founded.


In 1922 and 1927 two evangelistic campaigns were held in Costa Rica under the direction of LAEC. In the first of these, a theatre was hired to facilitate those who wanted to attend, but did not wish to enter a Protestant church building. Thousands attended meetings over a nine day period, including people from the middle classes: teachers, lawyers, and government officials. There was generally a very positive response to the programme. The following campaign, however, was very differently received.

By now Susannah Strachan’s seminary was well-established and the Protestant evangelism, under her direction, became more aggressive. Indeed, Catholic clergy organized opposition when a Puerto Rican Presbyterian preacher was booked as the main speaker at a hall that held one thousand people, opposite the prestigious Europa Hotel in San José. The success of the evangelistic campaign led to the purchase of property two blocks to the west of the Central Park, which was converted into a tabernacle that could hold a thousand people. It was formally dedicated on 3 January 1930. Two months later, Father Rosendo de J. Valenciano organised a two thousand person strong march to this tabernacle and celebrated the Eucharist outside, on an altar carried there for the purpose, in opposition to this ‘house of heresy’. In more recent years, the Bible University of Latin America has embraced an ecumenical theology of liberation and the Latin American Mission has broken its historic ties with the seminary because of their differing theological perspectives. The Bible University receives support today instead from The United Methodist Church (USA) and the Methodist Churches of Britain and Ireland, among others.

Susannah Strachan also founded the Hospital Clínica Bíblica (Bible Hospital Clinic), under the auspices of the Latin American Mission. On arrival in Costa Rica, the Strachans were concerned about the poverty of the local health services and the disturbing level of infant mortality. For every 1,000 babies born each year, 350 died in infancy, 50 per cent before they reached the age of five. Poor nutrition and the abandonment of babies constituted the biggest problems. In general, the life expectation was just forty years, with tuberculosis and malaria wreaking havoc, among other illnesses. The Strachans organised the importation of essential medical supplies and Susannah established the Bible Hospital Clinic as a paediatric centre. It soon developed into a hospital that also offered maternity care, surgery and a nursing school. Now independent from the Latin American Mission, it is today one of the leading hospitals of Costa Rica, albeit with a private ethos that could be considered far from the founding vision of Susannah Strachan.

Following the devastating San José train crash of 16 April 1926, in which 178 pilgrims died, Susannah Strachan set up the Bible Orphanage (Hogar Bíblico Para Niños), which still operates today under direct government control. Together with her husband, Susannah Strachan founded, in 1937, La Asociación de Iglesias Evangélicas del Caribe (the Association of Evangelical Caribbean Churches), which established churches along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where the Strachans had made a number of visits. On 23 February 1948, Susannah was invited to connect the electricity to launch the first broadcast of the evangelical radio station, Faro del Caribe. Upon the death of her husband in 1945, Susannah Strachan became joint director of the Latin American Mission, with her son Kenneth. She continued in this role until her death on 5 December 1950.

Influenced as she was by fundamentalism and an aggressive form of evangelical Protestantism, it would be interesting to see her reaction to the ecumenism and Liberation Theology which underlie the ethos of the Bible University of Latin America today. Yet, to be fair, even in the pre-Vatican II world in which the Strachans operated, they tried not to publicly criticise Catholicism, but rather present a positive Evangelical Protestant message. Moreover, unlike many evangelicals of their day, they saw no incompatibility between evangelicalism and social action. Furthermore, the Strachans were ahead of their time in their insistence  of the use of indigenous leadership. Latin America and its theology have changed much in the past years yet this university, with its desire to offer theology from the perspective of women, the indigenous and the poor, is the same institution that was founded by Susannah Strachan. This remarkable Irishwoman insisted that the first students be female and dedicated her life, her spiritual zeal and her medical knowledge to people struggling with poverty, sickness and spiritual needs in lands far from the shores of her native County Cork.

 * With thanks to Señor Álvaro Perez Guzman, Head Librarian, Henry Strachan Library, Latin American Bible University, San José, Costa Rica.



-El Legado De Susana Strachan (Recopilación de varias fuentes). Available from Henry Strachan Library, Universidad Biblia Latinoamérica , San José, Costa Rica.

-Guzman, Álvaro Pérez, ‘The Library of the Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana; 75th Anniversary in the midst of changes’, in Theological Librarianship (An Online Journal of the American Theological Library Association), Volume 4, No.1, July 2011, 8-15.

-Smith, Randal David,  Rethinking the Latin America Mission: Utilizing Organizational History to Inform the Future (Presented to the Faculty of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism in partial fulfilment of the requirements for Ph.D; Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. May 2001)






Historia de la Biblioteca de la UBL, video showing the Strachans:



Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2011

Published: 01 November 2011
Edited: 07 Diciembre 2011

Conrad Hicks 'Susannah Beamish-Strachan: From Cork to Costa Rica (1874-1950)  in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 7:4 (November 2011), pp. 299-304. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla2011_7_04_10_Conrad_Hicks.htm), accessed .

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information