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(Yonhap Feature) Priest's film sheds light on Austrian nurses' 40 years of service in leprosy colony

2017/09/14 09:00

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By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, Sept. 14 (Yonhap) -- After six months on the remote southern island of Sorok, South Korea's leprosy colony, Rev. Franciscus Kim Yeon-jun thought he had had enough. It was too lonely a place even for a priest to live and the resident patients were too refractory. Nothing went according to his plans.

"I felt I couldn't live there any longer... Everything was stressful, including loneliness from being on an island. Hansen people were also different from my expectations," Kim said of his first assignment to the island in 2004 as assistant provost at the island's cathedral.

"I wanted to escape," he said.

So frustrated, Kim went to see two elderly Austrian nurses, who spent a surprisingly long time -- about 40 years -- on the island as volunteer workers, for advice. After hearing out Kim's complaints, one of them, Margareta Pissar, said: "Jesus washed his disciples' feet. That would do."

   "She was basically scolding me in an indirect way that I was having a hard time because I tried to control Hansen people, rather than serving them," Kim said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency by phone. "What she meant was that I can overcome everything if I have humility."


This undated photo shows Marianne Stoeger (R) and Margareta Pissar (L) taking care of a leprosy patient on the South Korean island of Sorok. This undated photo shows Marianne Stoeger (R) and Margareta Pissar (L) taking care of a leprosy patient on the South Korean island of Sorok.

That line about the humble act of washing others' feet crystallizes the selfless service of the nurses who first came to Sorok in the 1960s when they were in their 20s, and spent the rest of their lives caring for leprosy patients until their return to Austria in 2005 when they were in their 70s.

"When I first learned of what they did here, it was not only emotional, but also came as a shock," Kim said. "They lived here for 40 years as volunteer nurses without even getting pay. It must have been an unprecedented case in nursing and human history."

   Despite the initial frustrations, Kim held on thanks in part to that advice.

He not only served out his two-year stint, but he also came back to the island again years later, this time as its chief Catholic priest, after the nurses -- Marianne Stoeger, now 83, and Margareta Pissar, 82 -- left the island for good.

It was during his second assignment that he decided to make a documentary film about them as part of a project to mark the 100th anniversary of the leprosy hospital on Sorok, which was first established in 1916 during Japan's colonial rule of Korea to quarantine patients.

"I asked myself at that time what would be the most important thing in its 100-year history, and thought that Marianne and Margareta are an inseparable part of it," Kim said.

Rev. Franciscus Kim Yeon-jun Rev. Franciscus Kim Yeon-jun

The film, titled "Marianne and Margaret," was produced with financial help from the government of Goheung County, to which the island belongs. It was released in late April and was seen by some 30,000 people, a decent score for a documentary film.

The number of viewers is expected to soar as the education chief of South Jeolla Province agreed to show the film to about 100,000 middle and high school students in the province. Similar agreements are expected to follow.

The film explains how the two dormitory roommates at nursing college in Austria's Innsbruck became members of the Handmaids of Christ the King, a religious congregation of women committed to devoting their lives to helping others, and came to Sorok.

Witness accounts abound about how selfless they were, such as using their bare hands to clean wounds and apply medication at a time when leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, was misguidedly considered to be so highly contagious that it could spread even by wind.

It was because of such baseless fears that unaffected children on the island were separated from ailing parents and allowed to see them only from time to time. More importantly, when standing from across a street, the children stood on the side with wind blowing from behind and toward their infected parents on the other side.

An elderly patient says in the film that he was so shocked and heartened to see the Austrian nurses touching his wounds with their bare hands. He said it was after they did so that their Korean counterparts started taking off their gloves when treating patients.

When Stoeger and Pissar came to Sorok, which means "little deer," in 1962 and 1966, respectively, South Korea was one of the world's poorest countries trying to recover from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War with little money to spend on leprosy patients.

So every time the nurses traveled back home to renew their visas, they raised funds, with the help of the Austrian Catholic Women's Movement. They then used the money to build residential buildings for tuberculosis patients, a bath house, and for other purposes, while living without even a bed in their quarters.

As South Korea pulled itself out of poverty and transformed into an economic powerhouse, the two nurses increasingly felt they were not as much help as they used to be. Moreover, Stoeger was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

They started to feel like they were more a burden on Sorok, leading to their decision to go back to Austria for good. On the eve of the expiration of their visas, they quietly left Sorok, leaving behind only a good-bye letter.

Marianne Stoeger (L) and Margareta Pissar pose for a photo in 2016. Marianne Stoeger (L) and Margareta Pissar pose for a photo in 2016.

Stoeger and Pissar currently live in towns near Innsbruck and see each other from time to time, Kim said. They are relatively in good health, though Pissar is was diagnosed with light dementia and short-term memory loss. Still, she remembers every detail of her years on Sorok, he said.

The film gave rise to a campaign to nominate the two for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon first suggested the campaign after watching the documentary when he was governor of South Jeolla Province. The provincial government is organizing a civilian-government committee for the campaign and former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik has agreed to chair it.

"I decided to make the film thinking that we should be grateful for what should be grateful," Kim said. "I felt so sorry for them that our country didn't care for them when they became old. I just wanted to express thanks through this film."

   At the end of the film, Pissar is asked if she wants to go back to Sorok.

"Now?" she says, speaking in Korean, before shaking her head in negation. She said she loved working on Sorok, but she doesn't want to go back because people would lift her up as someone deserving praise and prizes, which would make her uncomfortable.

Asked again if she would go back because she misses the people of Sorok, she said, "I see them in my heart."

   "Everybody liked (us)," she said, gazing into the air as memories flood back. After a pause, she said, smiling, "Everything is over now. The Sorok island era is over. I lived happily there. It was so good."