A leprosy patient waits for a doctor at Karunalaya Leprosy Care Centre in Puri, a temple town in India’s eastern state of Odisha. Late Polish missionary Marian Zelazek founded Karunalaya in 1976 to rehabilitate abandoned leprosy patients. (Photo supplied)
At 66, Brunda Mohanty vividly remembers the painful situation when he left home as a 14-year-old boy. His mother had died early in his childhood and people in his ancestral village of Nirakarpur in Puri district of India's Odisha state loved him so much.
But that was until some patches appeared on his body. “Soon my loved ones began to treat me as an outcast,” he said in a soft, forgiving voice. Slowly, he realized he had contracted leprosy, a disease Indians consider a curse.
Sitting inside Karunalaya (house of mercy) Leprosy Care Centre in Puri, Mohanty recounted how he happened to land in the enclave that Polish Divine Word priest Marian Zelazek had started in 1976 to help people like him.
Just like Mohanty’s family, some 160 families now live in the center with their children and grandchildren. With the third generation growing up here, the place has become their home. All the older residents fled their homes and villages following severe social exclusion.
After leaving home, Mohanty boarded a train without a ticket and landed in a slum area of Puri city. He soon found himself living in a slum occupied mostly by people like him — infected with leprosy and considered outcasts.
For his food, Mohanty begged around Puri’s famous Jagannath Temple, which attracts hundreds of visitors each day. He lived that life for almost nine years until he had a chance meeting with Father Zelazek.
The Catholic missionary offered him free medical care, food and accommodation. “Until then, no ordinary human being knowingly even came close to me or people like me,” he said. “He himself dressed my wounds and applied for medicine. That made me think there are still people who love me.”
Father Zelazek, who spent five years in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany during World War II, died in 2006 aged 88.
A file image of Polish Divine Word priest Marian Zelazek. (Photo from Wikimedia)
Father Baptist D’Souza, another Divine Word priest who is now director of the leprosy center, said it is home to about 700 people.
Although most residents are either cured and their children and grandchildren have no infection, “they live here because they have no other place to go,” he said.
Father D’Souza said the primary aim of the Polish missionary was to ensure a dignified life for leprosy patients who were totally unwanted in society, including by their families.
When Father Zelazek started the mission, “it was tough to convince people that this disease is just like any other and can be cured if detected in the early stages,” Father D’Souza said. Even trained medics were not willing to treat patients because they feared infection, he said.
Suffering social neglect
Christian missionary work by the likes of Father Zelazek has brought a social change. “Now nobody treats leprosy patients as outcasts or is afraid of providing them with medical help,” the priest said.
Mohanty said he is indebted to Father Zelazek for what he is today. After joining the center, he worked as its gardener for a living and continues to do that job to this day.
Just like him, every resident was offered some work and a wage. They were helped to find life partners and their children were educated.
Since the early 20th century, Catholic missionaries have set up colonies across India to take care of leprosy patients who have been suffering social neglect.
The World Health Organization’s 2011 reports show that the world has some 250,000 people with leprosy and more than half live in India. In 1991, the country had 75 percent of leprosy patients in the world.
India launched the National Leprosy Eradication Program in 1983 with support from global agencies, but India is still the country most affected by leprosy in the world.
Father Zelazek’s center includes a 20-bed hospital exclusively for leprosy patients. It provides free medical care, food and accommodation. The number of people seeking medical care has reduced to less than five annually.
He also started a school to help the education of children of leprosy-affected people as they could not get admission to mainstream schools of the time. However, Beatrix School has now become part of the mainstream education system. Only about 150 of its 800 students come from the colony.
“Some 25-years back, we could not imagine children from normal families joining our school even if they were offered the moon,” said Father Joseph Daniel, a Divine Word priest working there.
Father Daniel said most residents ended up making the center their permanent home as they were not accepted in their villages even after they were cured.
One example is 65-year-old Prabhulla Sahu from Sonpur village in Boudh district. He was diagnosed with leprosy at 12 but was cured after treatment by Christian missionaries in another village.
“When I returned home, I was not allowed to enter the village and was forced to leave. Neither my parents nor three siblings came to my rescue,” he told ucanews.com.
He was homeless for several years and finally landed in Puri, where Father Zelazek gave him shelter in the colony. He later married the daughter of another couple living at the center. They have children and grandchildren.
“The stigma of the disease is longer there and I visit my family members,” Sahu said.
Julia Tete, a regular visitor to the center, said there is no difference between leprosy sufferers and other people.
“The Catholic missionaries’ continuous service with the lepers for over four decades has helped people realize that leprosy is a curable disease and does not infect anyone who just goes near them,” she told ucanews.com.
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