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Joe Hopkins’ smile will live on for generations

Mission worker, who died last week, celebrated his centennial in May

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

In May, Joe Hopkins celebrated his 100th birthday at his alma mater, Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy of Westminster College Alumni Office)

NEW WILMINGTON, Pennsylvania — The Rev. Dr. Joseph Martin “Joe” Hopkins, a beloved Presbyterian volunteer and mission specialist in Malawi as well as Sudan and Haiti, died in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 24 at age 100.

Recently when Hopkins had to receive care at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, where he was born in 1919, he told the staff, “I thought I should come and visit once every hundred years.” Friends and family said he lived every day to its fullest. His sense of humor and puns are fondly remembered by all who knew him.

“When I took a group of Pittsburgh Seminary students to Malawi, everywhere we went in the Blantyre Synod folks asked if I knew Dr. Hopkins,” said the Rev. Dr. Donald Dawson, past director of the World Mission Initiative and the New Wilmington Mission Conference.

“When I responded that I knew him well, my credibility increased exponentially,” Dawson said. “Joe was loved incredibly because of the loving and humble way he served there as a teacher and pastor for six years after his retirement.

Carol Knowlton Paxton wrote, “Dr. Hopkins was one of my favorite people in the world. He was my adviser and professor while I was a student at Westminster. He exuded joy whatever he was doing.” She remembered that her professor drove her to the doctor when she was ill because she didn’t have a car on campus.

“Joe will always have a special place in the hearts of the Sweeney family,” wrote Rick and Prudy Sweeney. They said Hopkins helped arrange for the adoption and escorting of their son from Malawi in 1992.

“I’ll always remember Dr. Joe’s smile, gentle sense of humor and gracious way of teaching and encouraging,” wrote David Hostetler. “He was greatly blessed and he greatly blessed others. He was a Westminster ‘Titan’ of faith!”

The Rev. Dr. Joe Hopkins and his wife, Lou, faithfully attended the annual New Wilmington Mission Conference each July. They likely hold the record for conferences attended — about 75 since the 1940s. (Photo by Tammy Warren)

Last December Hopkins and his wife, Lois Elaine McCallum, celebrated 70 years of marriage. Together they were blessed with five children, 19 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. Family members agreed that the greatest joy of Joe’s life was his relationship with God. There was nothing he loved more than sharing God’s love … through hospital and prison visitation, in church or, in his later years, on social media.

When Joe, Lou and their daughter, Elaine, moved to Malawi in 1979 to volunteer in mission for five months, Joe taught at Zomba Theological College and served as an assistant at Zomba Church of Central Africa Presbyterian. Lou taught music and recorded 100 unpublished hymns in Chichewa, Malawi’s national language. Joe later returned to Malawi alone and served at the seminary and the church nearly five years, learning the language well enough to preach in the Zomba church and in rural prayer houses.

“Joe had a special place in the hearts of a generation of Malawians, not only for his generosity of spirit and depth of faith, but for his willingness to seek to master the Chichewa language,” said the Rev. Dave Carver, pastor of First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights, in Pittsburgh Presbytery. “He was an avid student, preaching in the local language and communicating in other ways as well. I’ve been privileged to make many journeys to ‘the Warm Heart of Africa’ over the years, and every time Joe found out I was headed that way, I got a thick stack of letters and postcards written to former students in Chichewa.”

Carver said the language didn’t come automatically for Hopkins — he worked at it. “My friend, the late Rev. Ralph M’nensa, told me of attending a service that included the baptism of dozens of babies. Joe was at one side of the chancel and a Malawian colleague was at the other, and they alternated the administration of the sacrament as families waited patiently. Joe was struggling to master the pronunciation of the liturgy in Chichewa until the frustrated Malawian pastor yelled out, ‘Do it in English, Hopkins! It’s faster!’ I will always be grateful for the gentle heart and deep wisdom that Joe shared. It was an honor to call him my friend.”

While serving in Malawi, Hopkins officiated many funerals and used his car to drive people to the hospital and transfer bodies from the morgues to their homes for traditional services. The poverty, he once said, impacted him most. It was poverty that moved him, in 1988, to create the Malawi Mission Fund, which responds to appeals for assistance from pastors and students. The fund helps Malawians put steel roofing on mud-brick homes and prayer houses, pay school fees to send students to high school and technical training, and buy bicycles and used motorcycles for pastors overseeing churches and prayer houses. It has also assisted others beyond Malawi, such as three orphaned sisters in Uganda who completed secondary school and went on to university. The fund sent one of the girls to South Africa for a life-saving heart operation.

While reviewing a document about a partnership his church has with Nansambo Presbyterian Church in Malawi’s Blantyre Synod, Jim Leuenberger, pastor of McKeesport Presbyterian Church in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, learned that when Hopkins left Malawi, he [Hopkins] gave the Nansambo congregation $3,500 to help construct a new sanctuary. “I think this is just one of many ways Joe made sacrifices to encourage Christ’s global church in ways that nobody knows,” Leuenberger said. “What a wonderful example for all of us.”

During a celebration of his 75th anniversary of his graduation from Pittsburgh Seminary, Hopkins signed copies of the children’s book he wrote at age 98, “William’s Nine Lives.” (Photo provided by Dave Dawson)

A couple years ago at age 98, Hopkins published his first children’s book, “William’s Nine Lives,” a story to introduce life and work on the farm to children who may think milk comes from square cardboard containers purchased in a supermarket.

Hopkins also composed more than 100 musical pieces and three major musical productions. For many years the New Wilmington Mission Conference Board would choose a theme verse of Scripture and Hopkins would write a song using that verse. He began attending the NWMC in the 1940s.

Hopkins earned his Bachelor of Music degree from Westminster College in 1940, his Bachelor of Theology from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1943, his Master of Education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1948 and his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1954. He served as a U.S. Navy chaplain in the Philippines and aboard the U.S.S. Tangier, a seaplane tender. In 1946 he returned to his alma mater, Westminster College, and taught there for nearly 40 years.

During his teaching in the Bible Department at Westminster College, Hopkins also served locally as a pastor at Mt. Pleasant United Presbyterian Church in Hickory, a supply pastor at Lebanon United Presbyterian Church in Greenfield, a pastor of visitation at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sharon, a parish associate at the New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, and as an interim supply pastor in several area churches.

Friends will be received from 3–7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 31, at The Smith Funeral Home, 310 W. Neshannock Ave., New Wilmington.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 1 at the New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, 229 S. Market St. in New Wilmington. Interment will be private at Fair Oaks Cemetery, New Wilmington.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to:
New Wilmington Presbyterian Church
Westminster College
New Wilmington Mission Conference
Malawi Mission Fund, in care of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, 229 S. Market St., New Wilmington, PA 16142


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