World Leprosy Day is observed on the last Sunday of January every year, to increase public awareness of leprosy. It is estimated that around four million people worldwide are affected by leprosy.
Here is what I wrote some years ago after visiting Fr Bernard van Spaandonk MHM in Iloilo, The Philippines, whose commitment to the wellbeing of lepers and their descendants extends into his retirement years.
Santa Barbara Colony: walking in the footsteps of Damien
Today – May 10th – the Church remembers St Damien de Veuster, the famous apostle of the lepers on this Hawaiian island of Molokai. Some years ago in Belgium, his native country, he was voted the most prestigious national ever.
In our day leprosy is eminently treatable and curable, even if some physical effects, such as partial loss or deformation of limbs, remain.
At the Santa Barbara Colony in Iloilo Fr Bernard van Spaandonk mhm (75) has been ministering to burnt-out-case lepers and their numerous descendants for the past 30-odd years. They live in a large slum-like neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city, eking out a meagre existence collecting and selling scrap metal and usable parts of electric/electronic devices.
The eldest and weakest burnt-out cases are being cared for in two separate wards (men – women) in the adjacent hospital which was founded by the ICM Sisters.
Recently relocated to new and better equipped facilities the hospital has kept its original name of ‘Sanitarium’ although its main purpose is no longer the treatment of leprosy.
‘For purposes of outside funding’, Bernard wrily remarks.
Bernard has played an important role in rehabilitating the living conditions of these marginalised rejects of society helping to improve housing and build concrete footpaths and roads.
When I visited him a few days ago he invited me on a quick walking tour around the estate.
‘I see my current task here as a ministry of presence’, he says flashing a radiant smile, as he goes around greeting all and sundry. ‘A day not smiled, is a day not lived’ is his motto.
His daily routine is utterly simple: An early riser he reserves ample time before breakfast for personal prayer and the Eucharist. After that some odd jobs – cleared the colony’s graveyard of grass and weeds recently.
‘A local homeless drunkard came to help me, without any prompting on my part. I was stunned. Together we cleared the whole cemetery! And it kept him off the bottle for a while!’
In the afternoon it is time for a leisurely walk through neighbourhood, chatting here and there, delighting in the kids who come to ask for his blessing in typical Philippine fashion, and generally surveying the scene with a slow contemplative gaze.
‘Some people, when ageing, speak of ‘preparing for death’, I prefer to speak of preparing for resurrection life.’
One could think of less inspiring ways of flourishment in semi-retirement.
Fons Eppink mhm