Austrian sisters recognized for 40 years of working with South Korean leprosy patients

by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

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Two Austrian Catholic nuns who spent more than 40 years working with people with Hansen's disease, also known as leprosy, on the South Korean island of Sorok have been awarded the prestigious Korean Manhae Award for Social Work and recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sr. Marianne Stöger, 82, and Sr. Margaritha Pissarek, 81, both Sisters of Christ the King, left Austria in the early 1960s to work as nurses at the state-run leprosy hospital in Sorok off the Korean mainland. During the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation, people with leprosy were quarantined on Sorok, subjected to forced sterilizations and abortions, and mobilized to produce war supplies. After the country's liberation, more than 6,000 people were confirmed to have been sent there.

Stöger and Pissarek committed themselves to taking care of leprosy patients for over 40 years, frequently buying medicine and physical therapy equipment with money they personally raised from the sisters' families and friends in Austria. They invited doctors from overseas to perform surgeries and built a child care center for children isolated from their parents.

When they first arrived, there were almost 6,000 leprosy patients and 200 children who were isolated from their patient parents on Sorok Island. Now, there are only 539 patients left.

There are hardly any new cases of leprosy in South Korea today. The leprosy hospital has become known worldwide for its treatment and research on the disease and recently hosted the World Hansen's Disease Forum, which included 30 delegations from all over the world.

In November 2005, the two sisters decided to return home to Austria, as they felt that they were no longer able to carry on with their work for health reasons.

"We've been talking to our colleagues about leaving before we get too old and turn into some kind of burden," they wrote in their farewell letter to the people of Sorok. "... Thank you for the great amount of respect and love that you have given us and please forgive us if we, as non-Koreans, have ever hurt you."

In May, 11 years after they left, Stöger was able to return to Sorok for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the leprosy hospital, but Pissarek, who is now in a nursing home, could not return.

The Goheung County Office in South Korea announced in June that it would put forward Stöger and Pissarek as nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize. Their homes and the few personal possessions they left behind on Sorok will become official cultural heritage items, and a memorial hall will be built for them. A documentary, "The Lepers' Sisters," is in preparation, initiated by the South Korean Catholic church.

In August, a delegation from the Austrian Catholic Women's Association traveled to Korea to receive the Manhae Award for them.

"The two sisters now have veritable cult status in Korea," Austrian Catholic Women's Association chairwoman Eva Oberhauser told Kathpress, comparing the sisters to Mother Teresa.

Fr. Kim Yeon-Jun, a South Korean Catholic priest who knows the sisters, plans to visit the sisters in Austria in October.

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]