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Leprosy Colony Parishioners Serve Others Less Fortunate

Updated: September 29, 2004 05:00 PM GMT
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Buntham Sukasem used to beg for his livelihood, but the nearly blind man now serves the less fortunate in his parish in southern Thailand.

Buntham, 52, and his wife, Kanungnit, baptized in 1981, were among the original members of the St. Vincent de Paul Church community. They live, as do all the community members, at Phud Hong Leprosy Colony in Ronphibun district, Nakhon Si Thammarat province, 600 kilometers south of Bangkok.

The church is next to the colony the government set up to provide housing, medical treatment and food for about families affected by leprosy, or Hansen´s disease. About 300 Buddhist, Muslim and Christian families live there today.

The Catholic community has grown to 110 members of 31 families, Buntham told UCA News Sept. 25. The newest members -- three adults and five children -- received Baptism at the church Sept. 25 as the community celebrated the feast day of Saint Vincent de Paul.

As an official of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Buntham visits homebound people, brings them food and reports special needs to Salesian Father Rossignolo Renzo, the parish priest. These needs could be for home repairs or scholarships for children.

Buntham, also president of the southern chapter of Thailand´s Association for Blind People, was working at a Catholic-run hospital for Hansenites in Prachinburi, eastern Thailand, when he met and married Kanungnit, a Hansen´s disease patient.

In 1976 he accidentally injured his eyes. After two years of treatment, and with no hope of Buntham recovering full sight, the couple moved to Nakhon Si Thammarat after hearing of the Phud Hong colony.

There, despite government-supplied housing, the two of them had to turn to begging, because Buntham could not work. Don Bosco Development Center, founded in 1984, helped them survive.

Buntham had studied some catechism in Prachinburi, so when he met a Salesian priest visiting Catholics in the area, he asked to continue. In the end, he, his wife and five people from two other families were baptized together.

Reflecting on his journey into disability, Buntham says, "Those who find life burdensome must be steadfast at having faith in God, and trust in God, despite terrible things happening to them."

"They must pray for patience and wisdom from God to walk through all life´s problems," he said. Because of "such perseverance and faith in God," he added, his four children have completed or are presently attending university.

Lavan Arunruang, secretary of the Don Bosco center, told UCA News that Buntham and his wife, despite their disabilities, are active in helping the less fortunate in the colony regardless of religion.

Somporn Hadphet, 60, another of the original church community members, also is active helping others in the community, Lavan said. He teaches welding at the Don Bosco center, which is directed by Father Renzo.

Somporn, who had both his legs amputated due to Hansen´s disease, told UCA News his three-wheel motorized vehicle takes him to work and neighbors to Mass. Before St. Vincent de Paul Church, was completed in 1997, next to the colony, the Catholics had to travel to the Don Bosco center for Mass.

The welder says he is grateful to God for his life. "People in the village should be reminded that although they receive good help, they should not forget God. It is only God who can make their lives better," he said.

One of the new community members baptized Sept. 25, Sangiem Songsuk, 64, admitted she originally wanted to become a Catholic because she thought God would bless her with wealth. But this early idea changed. She ultimately decided to convert to Catholicism, she said, because it teaches people to love one another and to develop a prayerful, religious life. She said she would share this with her relatives.

Lavan said the "unique character" of the parish is that its parishioners have or are related to people with Hansen´s disease. She pointed out that though the disease can be cured with proper medical attention, the disabilities it causes remain.

The Don Bosco center employs Hansenites and their families, training boys to be electricians, carpenters and welders. Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul nuns teach the girls typing, computer skills, sewing and dressmaking.


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