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On January 28th, we commemorated the 48th anniversary of World Leprosy Day, the effort of which was to enlighten the public to the suffering, pain and misery of those afflicted with Leprosy, and consequent help to them. According to the World Health Organization, at the break of the millennia an additional 740 thousand carriers of the so-called Hansen Disease (Leprosy) appeared. Of these numbers, 73% live in India, with others from Brazil, Nepal, Madagascar, Ethiopia, as well as from other countries. Leprosy occurs in countries with the lowest living standard, the equivalent of 25 Slovak crowns a day (about 0,75 Dollars). The common denominators of the spread of the infection are extreme poverty, terrible living conditions, lack of suitable drinking water, minimal hygiene, and almost no health care. Let us add that developed countries in Western Europe charitably support manifestation marches and associations for the benefit of those suffering from Leprosy.

On this unusual topic, we were informed by Peter Frei alias, Peter Zaloudek, from Vienna, Austria, who is originally from Czecho-Slovakia ["Peter Frei" is a pseudonym - a condition of a Catholic newspaper that the former priest who decided to marry not use his own name.] Peter visited the Hawaiian Islands, including the island of Molokai, three times. Each time Peter learned more and befriended those who live in the Leper Colony there. His friendship and ties to those who live on Molokai have added yet another dimension to his life.

How did you ever come to Oceania, to the island of Molokai? What motivation was it, or was it curiosity that brought you there?

Twenty-five years ago, while in secondary school, I read a book that impacted my life, the biography of Father Damian de Veuster, the Belgian missionary. He was active in this colony from 1873 through 1889 (our readers know Father Damian from the book of Wilhelm Hünnermann: On the Island of Death). His life story has filled me with enthusiasm that has never waned. He has since become one of the saints that I respect and admire.

In 1998 I prepared for a visit to the Hawaiian Islands. I supposed that I would see the places where Father Damian once lived and worked. The motivation to travel to Molokai was therefore nostalgic and geographic. Then it happened. The first visit lasted a mere several hours. In the leprosarium I could move only with a guide who treated me and the other tourists with reserve. The inhabitants of the island did not wish to be observed ... they always felt rancor because "healthy" society treated them with cruelty, sending them into exile (it must be added that Dr. Hansen discovered the bacterium leprae. The first medicine against leprosy was invented in 1946, a chemical therapy. On the third day after taking it, the patient no longer is a carrier of the disease. The therapy then lasts several months, depending on the stage of the disease).

This short visit with these wonderful people left an indelible impression. I took several photographs which I then made into slides and developed presentations. I held lectures on the heritage of Father Damien, and all that he had done to bring an awareness to the rest of the world. The interest that the public showed was beyond my wildest expectations. I decided to return to Molokai in 1999, and again in 2000. The purpose of these visits was to collect as much information as possible about the legendary Father Damian and the inhabitants of this "death colony". Today, I am proud and happy to call these inhabitants my friends, and maintain correspondence with several.

Will you describe the destiny of the people you met in the leprosarium?

This could be a long narration...first of all, I am going to tell you a bit of history. Since 1778, when Englishman Cook landed on the Hawaiian isles, people from Europe, America, and other parts of the world, started to arrive and settle there. This not only brought different cultures, habits and technical equipment, but unfortunately various diseases. The native Hawaiian people did not know "imported" diseases, and therefore were unable to protect themselves against them. One of these diseases was leprosy. Apparently it was carried to Hawaii by someone from Asia, probably from China. To this day, leprosy is also called "Chinese Disease".

In 1865, the Hawaiian King Kamehameha V founded a leprosarium on Molokai Island.
What extraordinary people I have met there! I have traveled extensively around the world, but I have never met anyone like them. Because inhabitants have been living there from birth (today they are 65-90 years old), they are branded by isolation to life. That's why they appear aloof to tourists. When you get to know them better, you'll discover that they are grateful for the time that is being devoted to them, for listening to them. I was impressed by their faith…their faith in life after death, this unimaginably lovelier life, when God will hold them close in his arms. All in Moloka'i are believers, even though they are all not in the sense of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Each of them trusts fully in God and cherishes the hope of eternal life. In my opinion, their extreme daily suffering and their hard life in the colony shifted their focus to beyond the horizon. It shaped them, helped them to find different values, and made them spiritual beings, directing them to God. After speaking with them for just a little while, you come to feel this firm faith strongly and convincingly.

I wish to mention Mrs. Olivia. She is 86 years old, and has lived in the colony since 1934. She was brought to this island from Honolulu where she was treated in a hospital specializing in leprosy. The patients were strictly prohibited from leaving the hospital, but Olivia, like other young patients, sometimes secretly went to the city in the evening. She longed for entertainment, the company of other young people. In the hospital, there were strict rules, and those who broke them were punished by exile to Molokai. This is what happened to Olivia.

Several years ago she wrote an autobiographical book, My Life of Exile in Kalaupapa (which is the name of the place where the leprosarium is situated). She describes not only her own life, and the experiences from involuntary exile, but the destinies of others sharing her affliction. In reading these terrible facts, you surely will be seized not only by horror, sorrow and pity, but also with anger at those who sent these people to the colony. I wish to at least mention this fact: the couples living in the colonies (even when married) were forbidden to conceive children so as not to spread the infection. And so it happened that these poor, sick people never saw children. Olivia saw a little child for the first time when she was 60 years old, and was shocked by the sight. She exclaimed "They are such wonderful and sincere beings! Oh God, what they have done to us here, forbidding the presence of children is surely a most flagrant sin."

I have seen and spoken with Mrs. Olivia several times. It has been a great experience for me. She is now sitting, an invalid, in a chair with no fingers on her hands, no toes on her feet, and she no longer has lips. In spite of this, she is constantly smiling, she has an excellent memory, is a very good speaker, and she sings wonderfully. I have experienced this several times during Holy Mass.


We continue the story of Peter Frei/ alias Peter Zaloudek, of Vienna. He is originally from Czechoslovakia, and speaks of those suffering from Leprosy from the island of Molokai.

Our readers know the book on Father Damian, who totally devoted his life to those with leprosy, as a missionary. Does his "spirit" still overlay the conscience of the people?

Definitely. Father Damian died in the year 1889, and those people who are living there today could not have known him more if he walked among them now. When you speak to those suffering from leprosy, they will remind you now and again: "Father Damian was one of the few who came to understand all we are going through." This witness makes a deep impression on me every time. He surely had to have had an extremely deep faith in God, and at the same time an enormous love for those sick because his name and deeds have been preserved in the oral tradition of the inhabitants of the island.

Let me tell you about another interesting observation of mine. The colony of those suffering from leprosy is a lovely arranged little village with nicely cut grass and flower beds. I realized that all this exists thanks to Father Damian. He taught these people how to live. He reminded them that this colony is their world, which has to be as good as possible, so they would feel well in it. This effort remains in the minds of those who live there to this day.

On your return to Europe, you have put your knowledge and experiences into a kind of a message. You have already been addressed by the media of the central European states, and you pass your ideas on to them. Why?

My own message? I do not know to what extent it is my own, and to what extent it is a gift of God. I have already spoken about one observation touching those suffering from leprosy. Despite their suffering they are so completely filled by an enormously deep faith in God and hope for eternal life. This is such a strong phenomenon that it is not possible to overlook it. Further message lies in the heroic life of Father Damian. He came to the island in the midst of an unimaginable misery - not only material but spiritual. Those suffering from leprosy, who were cruelly cast aside by "sound" of society, embittered and disgusted by their treatment, became aggressive and brutal to each other. Father Damian brought a completely new spirit to them - a spirit of faith, sense of sacrifice, and hope that comes from love. He fully identified with "his" people, later suffering from leprosy himself. In their memory, even his style of addressing those with leprosy - we lepers - has been preserved. When the Church is speaking on enculturation in connection with the activities of missionaries, Father Damian grasped the notion perfectly. His suffering, no matter how difficult (before his death he suffered from heavy depression) has brought abundant fruit. Up to now, many remember him with astonishment. He became an excellent model not only for priests of the world, but for all Christians.

Even before the death of Father Damian lay volunteers from the whole world started coming to the island of Molokai. The first of them was Joseph Dutton. He was an American from Boston, whose occupation was a martial officer. He learned about Molokai and decided to visit it. He worked on Molokai for three years before the death of Father Damian, then another forty-one years after that. Once he arrived, he never left. He is buried there. Many other volunteers of various professions came to the island as well. Father Damian was delighted, and befriended all of them. Remember, this was at a time when no one spoke a word about ecumenism. It's remarkable that when Father Damian died, the first big monument to him was not built by Catholics, but rather by English Protestants. In Kalaupapa a three-meter cross had been built with this inscription written on it, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends"... [John15:13]

In our world, mainly in third world countries, there still exists colonies like this today. But no where will you find one like Molokai. It is like an exclamation mark, not only because it was established for those with leprosy and a reservation with no escape, but because it teaches the world a lesson with a new view on the lives of those suffering and pain. This is the view of faith...the view of God, a sign of grace. It is just this view that we need in a time when man tries, at every cost, to escape suffering and paid, when man is seeking only satisfaction of feelings, instincts, senses, in a time when voices are raised, calling for euthanasia.

More importantly, we learn to look into our soul, get to know our own heart and conscience. In what sense? The example of this exotic disease, a thing I am trying to bring to parallel with our modern times, is no longer such a distant thing. When we hear "leper colony" or "concentration camp" we may say to ourselves "This is something terrible and not human. Who could ever invent such a thing?" But we don't see that these "inventions" have their bud in the "smallness of our heart". Every time we show disdain for those sick from AIDS, those who have physical diseases, or who are different from the rest of us, who have a different political opinion, or are of a different color, or do not fit into our team of colleagues, we begin to think this way. We sometimes want to "get rid" of them or evacuate them to a place where we are not exposed to them. These are the buds of future horrible colonies. Such thinking is not Christian, is not human.

In early February you are leaving for your fourth trip to the island of Molokai. What is your mission this time?

I leave Sunday February 4th, to fly back to Molokai. When my ideas are published in the Katolické noviny - Catholic Newspaper, I shall be there among those with leprosy. After three visits to their colony, I have lively and permanent contacts with the priest from the same Order as Father Damian. I must confess that I feel the attachment of those with leprosy deep in my heart, and I consider it a great honor that they accept me and are writing to me regularly. Even when it seems as if my stays on Molokai are somewhat "journalistic", it's not true. I speak of them with their approval because I wish to communicate wonderful messages about them and through them. Some time ago, when I got the invitation to visit, I was deeply moved. I'm going there not as a photographer and collector of facts, but as a man who truly enjoys their company. It's from their spirit and devotion, soaked with faith, that I wish to bring some peace to Europe.

Slovak catholic newspaper
March 4 and March 11 2001
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819 01 Bratislava 11
Email: posta@katnoviny.sk