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A St Francis of the East

Missionary wins top Korean award for tireless charitable works

<p>Fr Vincenzo Bordo (center) at the Ho-Am awards ceremony</p>

Fr Vincenzo Bordo (center) at the Ho-Am awards ceremony

  • Cristian Martini Grimaldi, Seoul
  • Korea
  • June 17, 2014
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The prestigious Ho-Am Prize 2014, known as the Nobel Prize of South Korea, has been awarded to Father Vincenzo Bordo. This is the first time an Italian has received this accolade.

A missionary with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Fr Bordo was honored for his services to the homeless, to elderly people living alone and young people on the street, through a series of programs he created. These include a cafeteria and a youth center in Seongnam, a satellite city outside Seoul.

He picks me up at Seongnam’s historical market, which is called Moran. "Welcome to the real Korea," he says. "Here you can find everything from power drills to dog meat."

After six months in Korea, this is my first glimpse of dog meat -- a delicacy that is strictly taboo in most nations. From here we head towards Anna’s House, where Vincenzo works and lives.

Vincenzo arrived in Seongnam in 1990. As a true St Francis of the modern era, the first question he asked as soon as he set foot in the Far East was: where are the poor?

"When I came here there was nothing,” he says. “Today the city has a million people, all living a hand-to-mouth existence."

For his first four years, he was an assistant pastor and worked hard to integrate in his new environment. He studied Korean for two years. Then in 1993, inspired by a nun who helped the poor, he opened a cafeteria for the elderly.

This is where Anna’s House originated. Throughout the 90s it was the first and only place in Seoul where the poor could have a hot meal indoors. Now its volunteers number 600 altogether, divided into 30 groups of 20,  mostly students.

It now offers medical and psychiatric services, as well as a barber and a consultant to help people find jobs. There are cultural classes for the homeless and even religious counseling, but only for those who want it, Vincenzo stresses.

"Our goal," he says, "is not to convert, nor to just feed the hungry, but to realize that these people have lost their human dignity. We try to restore it."

Why the name Anna's House?” I ask him.

"In 1998 there was an economic crisis here and many people found themselves on the street overnight. At that time a man who owned a restaurant came to me and said, ‘I know you work for the poor. If you want, I'll provide you with an extra room to make a new cafeteria.'"

“Why did he do that?”

"He said: ‘I am a Catholic, but I’m a poor practitioner, I never go to church, I seldom pray, but my mother has just died and I want to do something to honor her memory.’"

“Let me guess, the mother's name was Anna?”

"Yes. The man, who was called Matteo, funded the cost of providing two meals a week. Immediately the place was filled with 80 people. But when I asked people ‘what are you going to eat tomorrow?’ they all replied ‘we won’t eat anything.’

“So we extended the meals to three a week. But when I asked people what they would be eating tomorrow, it was still the same answer: ‘Tomorrow I won’t eat.’ So we went up to four meals a week, then five, and today we serve every day.

“Everything we built here has come from listening to what I call the cries of the poor."

As well as the cafeteria Vincenzo also operates four reception centers, looking after 40 boys; orphans, the abandoned, and those who run away from home.

"That's Ji-hoon," Vincenzo tells me, pointing out one of them "He’s eight years old and his divorced father beat him every day. He came to us just a few days ago."

Then he introduces me to Ye-jun, a tough looking 20-year-old with a tribal tattoo on his biceps and numerous ear piercings. When asked where his parents are, he shrugs; he has no idea.

Ye-jun has been in and out of the center several times since he was 15, but is now intent on studying. "I came back when I realized I did not stand a chance alone,” he says. “Now I want to prepare well, earn a bit of money and go to live on my own. "

I ask Vincenzo what percentage of the guys who come here eventually manage to find a stable job and build a life.

"If they’re young, as much as 80 percent can make it,” he says. “But if they’re older it means they carry so many scars inside, recovery become difficult.

“They’ve learned on the streets that they can make easy money just by stealing. When they come to us and see that they need to engage in study, follow rules, follow a certain form of discipline, then many of them abandon the attempt. The alternatives appear easier."

Vincenzo too has had his struggles. The old parish priest, he says, hated him.

"Yes, he wanted to send me away. For him this activity had nothing to do with the Church. Many think that to be a parish priest means to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and that’s all. The homeless? They stink, they cause trouble.

“I spent four years suffering and struggling. At one point I wondered if what I was doing was really the right thing, but I found the strength to believe in what I was doing. So this award was important for me psychologically. It has given me great satisfaction."

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