The two Austrian nuns spent 40 years on Sorok Island as nurses in a sanatorium for Hansen's disease patients. Despite a climate of fear and marginalisation, they treated patients trying to restore their dignity. Old and fearing they might become a burden on their hospital, they left, quietly. After they were invited for a final farewell, many of the children and grandchildren of the 6,000 patients hoped to see them.
Seoul (AsiaNews) – Sisters Marianne Stoeger, 82, and Margaret Pissar, 81, are two Austrian nuns who spent a lifetime helping patients with Hansen’s disease on Sorok Island, South Korea. In 2005, when they reached 70, they left the island, quietly, concerned they might become a burden on Sorokdo National Hospital, which they helped set up.
To mark its centennial on 17 May, the hospital invited the two nuns. Sister Margaret could not come for health reasons, so Sister Marianne came to South Korea alone.
“I didn’t want to do interviews because there was nothing at all special about life on Sorok Island,” Sister Marianne told the local press. The shy nun has also declined awards and rewards from South Korean authorities and various groups for the 40 years of mission and caring she and her fellow nun had for some 6,000 leprosy patients.
"Sister Marianne wanted to return home to Austria without meeting the media or the authorities,” a local priest told AsiaNews, but she was “convinced to stay by the children and grandchildren of the Hansen’s disease patients to whom she gave a new life."
After graduating from nursing school, the two nuns arrived in South Korea in the 1960s to work on Sorok Island, where a medical facility, more concentration camp than hospital, had been set up.
Whilst others who worked there armed themselves against possible infection with masks, gloves, and quarantine gear, the two women, then in their mid-20s, wore only white gowns as they tended to the patients. Even when their faces were spattered with blood and pus from wounds, they paid no attention.
Recalling her time on the island, Sister Marianne said, “It was through the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that I was able to serve”. Above all, “The greatest joy came from seeing patients being discharged from the island and meeting their family members after their wounds healed.”
Yet, not all the memories were pleasant, especially after she arrived.
Sorokdo Hospital was established in 1916 by the Japanese during their occupation of Korea. Over the years, it served as prison for Hansen’s disease patients, lepers, feared and marginalised. Even after the country was freed at the end of the Second World War, the new regime kept the place as it was.
Patients had to call staff members “Sir”. Beatings were routine, and patients were subjected to forced abortions and sterilisation. It took decades to turn things around.
During their stay, the two nuns made it their mission to restore the dignity of the patients. "We visited them early in the morning, when no one was around, and talked with them. Very often, we ate dinner together later in the evening, again to avoid checks. We did everything possible.”
Despite their reserve, the two nuns did a lot. They received medication from family members back home in Austria, and used financial support from their hometown women’s association to build an infant home, as well as a tuberculosis and a psychiatric ward. No wonder patients affectionately called them “our grannies”.
However extraordinary their life, none of it would have been possible without Him. “God is near us, and we live through His power,” Sister Marianne said. “As Jesus Christ lived through the pain of being nailed to the cross, so we must live with joy in our faith”. Indeed, “You can love anyone, no matter how much you dislike them, if you feel that Jesus exists within that person.”
Sorokdo Catholic Church, which is led by Fr Kim Yeon-jun, is currently working on a 120-minute documentary dedicated to the two ‘lepers’ sisters’. Goheung County is also planning to nominate both for the Nobel Peace Prize.