Fr John Lee Tae-soek was once so scared of lepers that he hid from them, but he became their champion
In January 2010, Fr John Lee Tae-seok, a Korean priest nicknamed “the Schweitzer of Sudan”, lay dying of cancer. His fellow Salesians surrounded him in his last agony and tried to accept the imminent death of the saintly priest who was only in his 40s. Fr John had worked tirelessly for nine years as part of the Salesian mission in war-ravaged southern Sudan. He had given the mission the full benefit of his talents: as a doctor devoted to the victims of leprosy, as a teacher and as a musician.
A few hours before his death, Fr John awoke and said: “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be all right.” He was referring to Sudan. Perhaps he sensed that the south was on the verge of a historic breakthrough. This January, almost exactly a year after Fr John’s death, the southern Sudanese voted for independence. The Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the first sitting head of state ever to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, has accepted the referendum result. Some believe that Fr John may have had an intercessory role in this. At Fr John’s funeral, Fr Farrington Ryan, the Salesian delegate to Sudan, gave a speech asking Fr John to “implore the good Lord to give us peace in the Sudan”.
John Lee Tae-seok was born in 1962, the ninth of 10 children. His parents, humble and committed Catholics, lived in the town of Busan in South Korea. Fr John lost his father at the age of nine and his mother supported the family by eking out a living as a seamstress in the market. John excelled at school. He had been very impressed by the biography of Albert Schweitzer and wondered about becoming a doctor.
But as he watched his older brother become a Franciscan friar he felt the stirrings of a religious vocation. His mother, however, was keen that John study medicine first. Partly in obedience to her he became a doctor. He worked first as a surgeon in the Korean army. But, when in uniform, he again felt the calling to be a priest. Seeing that he still wanted to pursue a religious vocation his mother gave him her blessing. “If that is what you choose, go ahead” were her words.
John joined the Salesians. He was asked many times why he did not become a Capuchin like his brother, but he felt that their way of life was, for him, too “restricted”. What attracted him to the Salesians? He said he was “fascinated by their music and sport as well as their loving, spontaneous, free and family style of relating”.
As a deacon, John visited the Salesian mission in southern Sudan. At first sight he found the leper colony a shock. He had been accustomed to practising medicine in the spotless conditions of Korean army wards.
The normally upbeat doctor was so overcome upon seeing the Hansen’s disease patients with their rotting limbs that he fled from their sight and ran into the bush. Once he had recovered he promised his fellow Salesians that he would “get used to it”, but they did not expect him to come back.
To their surprise Fr John wrote to them after his ordination in June 2001 to say that he would be coming soon. He explained that working among the lepers would be “the best way to be a doctor, priest and Salesian”.
Before starting work Fr John went to a hospital in Kenya to revise his medical knowledge about tropical diseases and to do some specialised study of malaria cases. The spirited young priest was certain he would “be a better missionary among the lepers than anywhere else”.
In Tonj he built a medical clinic with his own hands. He treated some 300 patients a day there. He had a Jeep so that he could make personal visits to patients who could never travel to him. In particular, he sought out Hansen’s disease victims.
Fr John had grown up in grinding poverty and never kept himself aloof from the poor of Tonj. He could have lived the affluent life of a highly qualified doctor. But instead, day after day, he was both nurse and doctor to some of the world’s poorest people. No longer daunted by the sight of the lepers, Fr John spent long hours cleaning and bandaging their wounds. He recorded his experience of helping them in two books, The Rays of the Sun in Africa are Still Sad and Will You Be My Friend?
Fr John’s story is likely to remind English-speaking Catholics of that of John Bradburne. Bradburne, an English gentleman who fought as a Gurkha in World War II, was renowned for his dedication to lepers in 1970s Rhodesia. He helped to build their small church and taught the lepers Latin so that they could sing Gregorian plainchant. Bradburne drove out the rats that gnawed at the lepers and brought them their rations of bread.
Bishop Paul Choi Duk-ki, the bishop of the diocese that Fr John hailed from, was moved to tears after seeing footage of the priest caring for the lepers on Korean television. Bishop Choi Duk-ki was determined to travel to Tonj to see Fr John in the flesh.The bishop was greatly inspired by what he saw and said Fr John was “like a saint”. The bishop said the experience had been like “walking with Fr Damian of Molokai, walking with Jesus”. Fr John had let love of Christ be the guiding light in all his endeavours with the lepers and showed clearly that “we have to treat them like Jesus”.
Fr John was known to have a special way with the young people of Tonj. They were drawn to his winning personality and radiant smile. The locals knew the gentle confessor as “Fr Jolly” – a name that stuck. He built the local school with the help of students and taught maths and music. Fr John also started the Don Bosco Brass Band and found that music lifted up the youth, who were in dire circumstances.
But one day Fr John took a rare holiday to Seoul. He had a routine check-up and was diagnosed with cancer of the colon and liver. At first he responded well to chemotherapy, but in the last months of his life his condition rapidly worsened and he died on January 14 2010, aged 47.
Fr John was extremely bright and had a joyful temperament. His all too brief life shows the great feats just one missionary can accomplish. As a result of his work there is now an infinitely higher standard of care for the victims of Hansen’s disease in southern Sudan. Fr John also passed on his love of music to the youngsters he taught and the Don Bosco Brass Band is now the most famous music group in southern Sudan.
A Korean television documentary about Fr John’s life in Tonj has been adapted into a powerful film, Don’t Cry For Me Sudan. Within 10 minutes of watching the film most people are reduced to tears. Some 120,000 people have watched the film in Seoul alone. Members of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the largest Buddhist denomination in South Korea, were greatly moved by the scenes depicting Fr John tending the lepers. Venerable Jaseung, the head of the order, admitted that he was unsure whether to show it to Buddhist monks and lay workers for fear they would convert to Catholicism after seeing it.
“It depicts the good life of a Catholic missioner and I was worried some of us would convert to Catholicism after being moved by the film,” he said.
But he went ahead because he believed that Fr John was a good role model for Buddhists. “If we could have one Buddhist cleric like him, the better it would be for Buddhism,” he said.
Meanwhile, Catholics who are devoted to Fr John are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his nickname, “the Schweitzer of Sudan”. For in some respects Fr John was an even better missionary than the Franco-German doctor and theologian. Schweitzer was a great man, but is often charged with having held a snooty, superior attitude towards Africans. This could never be said of Fr John, who is regarded by the southern Sudanese as a healer, friend and now an intercessor in heaven.