[New horizons] Post-war Korea beckons many Spanish priests
Korea, rising from the ashes of the war in the early 1950s, quickly became one of the top destinations for priests from Spain with a heart for missions.
First Spaniard to bridge two nations came in 16th century
"The first to come [after the war] was Father Jesus Molero," said Juan Ignacio Morro, ambassador of Spain to Korea, at his diplomatic residence on March 10. "He was followed by many in the 1960s and '70s, including Father Luis Maria Uribe."
Father Uribe may be the longest serving Spanish priest in Korea, with his service at Sungsimwon, a home and care center for people with Hansen's disease, dating back to 1980.
His service was recognized by Korea in 2014 when he was awarded the Father Lee Tae-suk Service Award by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Uribe also received the Order of Isabella the Catholic in November 2018.
Uribe's arrival in Korea in 1976 follows the footsteps of some dozen priests who came before him.
At the time, the cultural revolution in China had driven many Catholic bishops, priests and nuns out of China. Some had moved to Japan. Also being a close neighboring nation, some Spanish priests made a trip to Korea and saw more opportunities to serve.
"History says that he was the first European and the first Spaniard to reach Korean territory," Morro said. "He was assigned to Japan at the time, but seeing that there was a conflict between Japan and Korea, he had a heart to support the Korean people spiritually as well. He came to Korea and stayed about a year, during which time he wrote four letters about Korea to the order, letters showing a lot of comprehension about the Korean people."
The bond forged through the priests from Spain continue to bridge the two nations today.
It is estimated that around 20 Spanish priests are serving in Korea, of the orders including Franciscan, Salesian and Barefoot Carmelite Missionary Sisters, according to the Spanish Embassy in Seoul.
In Sancheong County of South Gyeongsang there lives a Spanish priest who has been eating with, singing with, celebrating birthdays with and holding the hands of hundreds of Koreans with Hansen's disease up until their last nights for the past 40 years.
Father Uribe helps Koreans struggling with disease for over 40 years
His name is Father Luis Maria Uribe.
When he does make one of his infrequent trips to Seoul, it's not hard to tell that he left his heart elsewhere.
"There's a girl whose birthday I missed today at Sungsimwon, I have to get back quickly to make up for it," he told the Korea JoongAng Daily as he sat in the residence of the Spanish ambassador to Korea on March 10.
The 75-year-old Father Uribe, or Yu Ui-bae sinbunim (priest) as he is called by most Koreans, has been living at Sungsimwon, a home for Koreans with Hansen's disease in Sancheong County that once housed some 600 people, since 1980.
Sungsimwon was built by a Catholic priest in 1959 for people with Hansen's disease to live together after they had fled from various parts of the country from social stigma and discrimination.
"They face less of a stigma today, but back then people didn't know too well about the illness. When people saw them, they immediately thought the words 'leprosy' and 'transmissible,'" he said. "But this was not true, because people at Sungsimwon were taking regular medication, meaning the disease was not transmissible. I stayed because I wished to show the people at Sungsimwon that they are also beloved."
Uribe is the only Spanish priest in the area around Sungsimwon.
Ending up there was rather coincidental.
In the early 1950s he heard the word "Korea" on a local radio station, when he was around four or five years old.
"I knew there was a distant country somewhere that was undergoing a time of war," he said. "Ever since then, the word Korea has been on my heart."
Uribe entered the Franciscan order at the age of 16. He had always known he wished to serve as a missionary abroad. Korea was among his destinations in mind, but he was first assigned to a village in Bolivia by Lake Titicaca after he completed his studies at the Arantzazu theological seminary.
The conditions were very poor, but the natural landscapes were a wonder to Uribe every day.
"The way the sun came down and bathed the sky and the lake every day was simply surreal," he said. "The people lived in very poor conditions, but they were so generous and kind."
Upon his completion of the mission in Bolivia, Uribe inquired the order again on if he may be needed in Korea.
At the time, the cultural revolution in China had driven many Catholic bishops, priests and nuns out of China. Some moved to Japan.
"One of the priests who had moved to Japan had visited Daegu and came back to tell us that there are ample missionary opportunities in Korea," Uribe said. "That night, some 10 priests said they would like to go to Korea. I knew this was my time, too."
Uribe came to Korea in 1976.
He was immediately disappointed.
"The skyscrapers in Seoul, they were nothing like I had imagined Korea to look like, especially since I had long associated Korea with its war-torn days," Uribe said. "I wasn't sure if I had made the right decision to come here. The country and its people seemed so well off."
Following two years of language studies and short-term services throughout Korea, including in Jinju, South Gyeongsang, Uribe found his calling.
When he was based in Jinju, an Italian priest heading the cathedral at Sungsimwon would often call him up for translation work. Uribe would bike to Sungsimwon every now and then. Then in 1980, the Franciscan order decided that Uribe should be assigned to the cathedral at Sungsimwon.
"When I first saw the people with Hansen's disease at Sungsimwon, some of them with affected facial structures and many suffering from blindness, I had this heart for them," he said. "I couldn't explain it. I just loved them the more I spent time with them."
"One day, I wondered if I was being too expressive," he said. "I asked some halmeoni [grandma or old lady] at Sungsimwon if they felt uncomfortable, and they all said no siree!"
Father Uribe was soon the star of the town. Everyone wanted him over for their birthday parties. He would attend the parent-teacher conferences in place of some parents who were at Sungsimwon. Little kids would especially like holding his hands, especially his fingers.
"I think it was because many of their parents, suffering Hansen's, had lost their fingers," Uribe said. "So I would roam around the village with these kids, hand-in-hand."
The little ones were also dear to his heart because of his own experiences during the civil war in Spain. Following the war from 1936 to 1939, his father was hospitalized and the family couldn't keep Uribe and his two siblings at home. They were sent to a day care center nearby, which housed many war orphans. The stay was temporary, but Uribe remembers with a wrenching heart the sight of seeing his younger siblings there.
"They separated us by age and gender, and I'd see my sister standing there with the other 7-year-olds. She could barely talk then, it broke my heart," he said. "For some reason, when I met with the young children through families at Sungsimwon, I wanted to be there for them, in whatever role they needed me to be."
The children have all grown up and left the town. But when they come visit their parents during holidays, they expect Uribe to be there at the family dinners.
Uribe's service at Sungsimwon entered its 41st year this year. It is unusual for a priest to serve so long in one location, he said.
"Every four to five years, the order would ask me if I wished to stay or move onto a different mission," Uribe said. "I told them, I'm content either way. For some reason, they always decided to let me stay."
During his years at Sungsimwon, Uribe saw the deaths of some 500 people he has come to call his family and friends. In addition to mourning with the families and holding the funeral rites, Father Uribe even dressed some of the dead.
"I dressed some 100 people," he said. "It started one night when someone at Sungsimwon passed away during the night, and we didn't have our usual specialist on dressing the dead with us. Since then, I learned how to dress the dead and have been doing it for the past 15 years."
Because Uribe has seen the decades of their lives, and oftentimes the pain they had to endure through their illnesses, he actually says it's kind of cathartic to be able to dress the people at Sungsimwon.
"They are finally free from all their pains and at rest in a better place now," he said.
"My mother suffered from heart problems since my father's hospitalization after the war, and she never quite recovered," Uribe said. "One day, my siblings called and told me she might pass very soon. I hurried over home, and miraculously, her conditions got better. The doctor said it was because I was there. I stayed for some five months beside her."
Then, Sungsimwon needed Father Uribe back in service. His siblings agreed that he ought to go. As he was transferring his flight at London, Uribe had a hunch that he should return to Spain. His mother had cried so much in seeing him go.
"She died a week later," Uribe said. "It broke my heart to hear the doctor say that it was my leaving that broke her. She is said to have thought that I love the people in Korea more than I love her. That was one of the hardest moments in my life, and a moment I still repent over."
His father passed on the same date as his mother, just 10 years later. Uribe was scheduled to fly out the day before his father's death to Spain.
"I got there in time to hold the funeral," he said.
Uribe keeps a very minimal wardrobe, with his Franciscan habit and cord of St. Francis being his everyday attire at Sungsimwon. One aspect about his fashion that stands out is perhaps his bushy, white beard.
"I grew it to look older than my age when I was in my early 20s, because I simply looked too young, almost like a student, rather than an ordained priest," he said. "I stuck with it when people told me that I look much like my age with the beard."
But even today, he hasn't escaped the role of being the youngest.
"We have about 90 people left at Sungsimwon, with two aged 100," he said. "I am, unfortunately, the youngest."
Uribe sums up his 40 years of service — every day of which he spent greeting, feeding, dressing, washing and driving the members of Sungsimwon and their families, in addition to holding the weekly masses and daily prayers for them — in simple terms.
"They taught me all that I know about life, how one can find happiness in the midst of all things and nothing," he said. "All I did was live with them and be friends with them. There was nothing more."
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]