Village of St. Lazarus Turns FiftyAmidst sweet acacia trees and deep blue creeks, a group of outcasts are cared for and sheltered in unconditional love. This is the village of St. Lazarus, located in the mountainous city of Uiwang in Kyonggi Province, where Monsignor Kim Hwa-tae and three sisters live and take care of more than one hundred leprosy patients. Although a bustling village boasting a modest skyline today, the village of St. Lazarus initially began as a displaced hut-village fifty years ago.
＂I escaped to Sorok Island when I was stricken with leprosy at the age of ten. Soon after, the Korean War broke out, and I was forced to return home. No one wanted to live near a leper; I was immediately exiled from my hometown. All through the war, I went from village to village begging for food. I finally came upon the village of St. Lazarus and found my haven.＂
Now 77 years old, Cho Se-jun, a long-time resident of the village, cheerfully added with a smile, ＂I only want to live for three more years, but with life as it is here, I think I＇m going to live much longer.＂ Cho has been living in the village since its founding in 1950.
The village of St. Lazarus was founded by American Bishop George Carolan, with the mission of sheltering the poor and the exiled on his self-purchased 100,000 pyong parcel of land in the otherwise deserted region. The small village of huts was often mistaken for North Korean encampments and consequently bombed more than once by UN warplanes during the Korean War.
Wearing his light-colored traditional hanbok attire, 74 year-old Cha Bok-soon recalled when she first arrived in the village. ＂My husband and family abandoned me when I contracted leprosy when I was twenty-two. When I came to the village of St. Lazarus, I finally found my peace. I thought of Jesus Christ who suffered for me on the cross, cast out by all, and I realized that my suffering could be overcome.＂
For the lepers in the village of St. Lazarus, the public's ignorance remains their biggest fear. To suffer condemnation from people who are so similar in shape and form, apart from this one malady, made them feel entirely lost and empty. Leprosy seemed like a death sentence from God.
＂I no longer feel like that anymore. I feel blessed and happy. Eating out of the same bowl with Father Kim, bathing with our three sisters and volunteers, I am one of the happiest people alive,＂ Cha added with a smile.
When asked to comment about the village of St. Lazarus and his contribution to its welfare, Monsignor Kim replied, ＂When I found out two years ago that I was being sent to the village of St. Lazarus, I prayed to God for courage and strength. I simply intended to work hard during my term. But when I stood at the entrance of the village and saw the words 'June 2, 1950' marked on the cornerstone, I realized that I was destined to be here. I was born on the very day this village was founded; it was God＇s intention to lead me to this village and to these people. All I wish for now is to live with my 'leper-friends,' caring for them until I die.＂
The term ＂leper-friend＂ was first coined by the late Monsignor Lee Kyung-jae, resident priest at the village of St. Lazarus from 1970 until his death in 1998. Monsignor Lee made certain that no one called the patients ＂lepers." He would call them ＂my family members＂ or ＂friends＂ or ＂little Jesuses＂. Today, the heartfelt love and lifelong dedication of Monsignor Lee lives on in the village of St. Lazarus.
＂We are one family; we are all parents, children, brothers, and sisters for one another. Many people ponder on the meaning of love. I say true love manifests itself in full form when you can eat with your 'leper-friends,' when you can bathe them, and when you can hand-wash their clothes. I learned this love when I came to the village of St. Lazarus,＂ said one Sister Elethea. She added softly, ＂Because we are only human, sometimes we cannot give as much as we would like to. When I look at our family members, though, I realize that true unconditional love really does exist in this world."