Leprosy: Vietnam and The Franciscan Order

Howard Duncan

“Riding one day in the plains below Assisi, he met a leper whose loathsome sores filled Francis with horror. Overcoming his revulsion, he leapt from his horse and pressed into the leper’s hand all the money he had with him, then kissed the hand. This was a turning point in his life. He started visiting hospitals, especially the refuge for lepers, which most persons avoided.”

(Life of Saint Francis of Assisi founder of Ordo Fratrum Minorum, or Order of Friars Minor)

 Leprosy – About 800 Years Later

The man saw the friar as he was about to enter the door of his friary. From a distance the man even looked in need. Close up one could see that the time spent living without some basic  needs and living with a damaged spirit had revealed itself in his person; long uncombed hair, a weathered dirty face with an unusual redness in places. He wore a very light short sleeved shirt that could not possibly keep him warm on this chilly fall day. The beltline of his wrinkled and dirty baggy pants fell below his protruding stomach so that one could see much of the colorful boxer type underwear. This was not the carefully put-on style of dress common to many young people today, but the result of not caring about style when life is so desperate.

“Are you the Archbishop?” He easily recognized the friar as a churchman, because of the Franciscan habit but was not familiar with details of local Catholic priesthood.

“No, I’m not.” The friar answered.

The man launched into his story of the need for a place to stay and the problems he had when money ran out at his last place. He spoke in the way one would  speak to a friend, someone that could be trusted with knowing of ones failures. The friar listened intently and quietly then said, “We don’t have facilities for people to stay here.”

The man accepted this explanation then pointing towards the church basement steps, and asked if he could use the bathroom there. He also asked if he could have a little instant coffee in a bag.

“Wait for me. What is your name?” The friar asked as he entered the friary.

A while later they met again outside. The friar handed the man a freshly brewed cup of coffee in a disposable cup and a warm looking jacket. The man thanked him genuinely and they parted with a simple “Good luck to you” from the friar and a “Thank you” from the man.

The friar re-entered the friary so he could begin my interview with him about their mission in Vietnam.

This is What These Friars Do

Three friars serving a meal at Van Mon.
Three friars serving a meal at Van Mon.

The incident in Assisi, where the later to be Saint Francis met the leper, was one mark of the beginning of a new life for one man. A man who’s legacy can be seen today in many parts of the world far from Francis’ native Italy. The story above about the needy man is part of that legacy; a legacy still alive after so many years.

Another place that the legacy still lives is at Van Mon in Thai Binh Provence in the North of Vietnam. My interview today with Father Francisco Nahoe OFM Conv, was about this place (see my previous interview here). This leper colony, or leprosarium from the Medieval Latin, is located next to the Red River, Song Hong in Vietnamese, in North Vietnam in South East Asia. It is one of the colonies the government of Vietnam has designated as a mandatory relocation place for about 600 people who have acquired leprosy; medically known as Hansen’s disease. This place has become a key charitable effort of the Conventual Franciscan Order and The Franciscan Sisters of Mary. Father Francisco is the Promoter of the Conventual Franciscan Mission in Vietnam and has personal experience with their mission activities there.

Mandatory Relocation

Waiting for a medical examination.
Waiting for a medical examination.

As has been the case in many countries, Vietnam requires persons who contract leprosy to leave their families and be placed in a leprosarium with others who have the disease. When a person contracts the disease, regardless of the persons age, he/she is taken to one of these colonies and given a place to live and a rice allotment. Fear of this relocation and the social stigma attached to the disease inhibits self reporting to the authorities. Medical training  and knowledge about the disease in the endemic areas of the world is not necessarily adequate, so it can go unreported until it reaches the visible stage.

In the case of Van Mon colony, the yearly food allotment is inadequate to feed these people so they grow additional food like the staple of their diet, rice. The rest of what they need to eat in order to exist comes from the local Catholic church. They live in a barracks type of housing with the only permanent caretakers being the Franciscan friars and sisters. The sisters have become teachers to the children many of whom have been born of lepers, but not lepers themselves.

Hansen’s Disease

Hansen's disease patient.
Hansen’s disease patient.

Named after the physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen who discovered the bacteria in 1873, this disease afflicts young and old with an incubation period from a few weeks, for infants, to as much as 30 years. It is a bacterial infection that is curable now with injections over several months. In its advanced stages, it is very visible because of the skin lesions. Permanent damage can occur to skin, limbs and eyes. Secondary infections, because of lowered immune defense, can cause further damage.

It is genetically resistible and only about 10% of the world’s is population at risk. Along with this natural risk, it is the poor that have suffered, like in Vietnam. Pollution of the drinking water due to mining activity or war, no readily available or well trained medical aid, or a poor quality diet that lowers the immune systems resistance to disease, are the conditions that promote the continuation of this disease. Even the well known have suffered the disease, such as the Catholic Vietnamese poet Han Max Tu.

Historically the people who have suffered this disease have also had to endure social stigmatization. The Stanford University website teaches,  

For a long time leprosy was thought to be a hereditary disease, a curse, or a punishment from God. Before and even after the discovery of its biological cause, leprosy patients were stigmatized and shunned. For example, in Europe during the Middle Ages, leprosy sufferers had to wear special clothing, ring bells to warn others that they were close, and even walk on a particular side of the road, depending on the direction of the wind.”

How The Franciscans Got Involved

During Br. Anthony’s visit to Vietnam in 1999 after learning that he was dying of “sister” cancer (read his story here), he cultivated contacts in several places in the larger geographic area south of Hanoi in north Vietnam. He went there in order to visit what was his parents village before the Communists took over in 1954. He took money with him from the U.S. donated by American Vietnamese Catholics in order to further charitable causes in Vietnam. One of the places he visited was the leprosarium of Van Mon.

After his visit and the building of a church in his parents village, the Conventual Franciscan friars had begun to help out at the leprosarium. This permission was obtained from the government by Fr. Martin. About five student friars and their directors, came from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)  to stay at Van Mon during vacation breaks from studies. They helped the older patients with personal chores; haircutting, cleaning their rooms, and other activities like gardening.

A Providential Visit

In 2008, Fr. Giorgio Abram OFM visited Southern California in order to attend a meeting of an international consortium of leprosy foundations, a series of unplanned events lead to an important next move on the part of the Franciscan Order at Van Mon, and for all of Vietnam. An Italian priest, Fr. Giorgio Abram is an expert in leprosy having worked in Ghana, West Africa, for decades in this field and is on the boards of a number of international leprosy foundations. While at the conference, Fr. Giorgio called my interviewee, Fr. Francisco, and asked if he would show him around the area while there. Fr. Francisco happened to be unavailable, but arranged for another friar to show them around. Fr. Giorgio’s traveling companion just happened to be the Director of the Franciscan charity, Saint Anthony’s Charities (Caritas Antoiana), which is part of Saint Anthony of Padua based at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy. The seminarian brother (now a priest) who showed them around “just happened” to be Vietnamese, very knowledgeable about Vietnamese culture and politics. The two visitors were introduced to Vietnamese life from the Vietnamese people living then in Southern California.

The very next year Fr. Giorgio visited the Van Mon leprosarium and  came up with the idea to build a facility on the grounds of the leprosarium where medical people could come and be trained in diagnosing and treating the disease. The Vietnamese government was receptive to the idea and this facility was built with money donated from St. Anthony’s Charities.

 The Future

Van Mon now has a stable Franciscan presence with a permanent friary and a place where medical professionals can come a study the disease under the supervision of experienced doctors. Those that come from Europe to teach have translators available. They all work towards a better understanding of Hansen’s disease throughout Vietnam so that those that become afflicted can be treated early. Early detection means a cure, as is now done in western countries, using modern drugs without uprooting the patient from his/her family. Without the disfiguring lesions, the patients will be able to live in regular society, can be treated as an outpatient, and have the expectation of a normal life.

So, as Fr. Francisco said, “It is strange how the Lord puts these resources together.  It was a very providential meeting that put the knowledge of Vietnam, the knowledge of leprosy prevention and treatment, and the resources of a major foundation, together.”

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5 thoughts on “Leprosy: Vietnam and The Franciscan Order”

  1. Pingback: We Like Messages, Don't We? - Catholic Stand : Catholic Stand

  2. My life as an atheist is often put to shame by selfless Christians like this. I sit in my easy chair with my IPhone with its faulty IOS 8 that makes it nearly impossible to copy and paste just looking to prove to someone that their faith is in an imaginary god. It is like when I found out that Santa wasn’t real and had to go around telling others that I had inside information about him.

    I know that atheists can also be very altruistic. Doctors Without Borders is an example of where you might find atheists doing charitable acts. But it just doesn’t seem the same as those who believe they will receive an eternal reward for what they do with this life.

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