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Remembering people with leprosy

Sr Helen McMahon FMM

Sr Helen McMahon FMM

Sr Helen McMahon from the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, (FMM) was guest speaker last night at a reception following the St Francis Leprosy Guild Annual Benefactors Mass, celebrated by Mgr John Dale, Director of Missio at The Church of the Immaculate Conception, in Farm Street.  

In her talk, Sister Helen said that leprosy has often been described a 'living death', a disease where sufferers are often shunned by their communities and their own families, but Christianity has always particularly reached out to people with this terrible disease. As a young man St Francis was  terrified of leprosy until one day he walked into a man with the disease and embraced him. From that moment he lost all his fear and, together with his brothers dedicated the rest of his life to caring for sufferers.

The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who were founded in 1877, by Blessed Mary of the Passion, Helene de Chappotin,  have a particular vocation caring for people with leprosy. Sr Helen described their work in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, India and Australia.  As well as treating their patients' medical needs, the sisters also establish employment projects to help patients earn their own living, and social activities, choirs and orchestras.

Leprosy is treatable now, but when the Sisters began their work there was no cure. (In order to protect themselves from infection the nuns use to pass their hands through a flame after touching a patient).  Only one nun ever contracted the disease.

The Sisters'  project in Australia has closed now. One in Vietnam has been taken over by the government. Tragically their hospital in Burma was shut down by the government in 1966. "The patients came to see us off at the railway station" Sr Helen said. "Later we learnt that 1,900 of them had been driven out into the forest."  The St Joseph's Leprosy Hospital, in Tuticorin, India is continuing. One of their specialism is weaving.

Leprosy is curable now, but patients often bear the marks of this cruel disease all their lives and have to stay in institutions,  because they are not accepted back in their communities. About 95% of the world's population has a natural immunity. But poor nutrition and bad hygiene contribute to the spread of the disease. There are about one and a half million  people in the world who have been treated for leprosy. 325,000 new cases are discovered each year.

The St Francis Leprosy Guild helps to support 80 leprosy projects around the world. If you would like more information, or to make a donation see: www.stfrancisleprosy.org/