A Spanish priest who has served Hansen’s patients for 36 years

Posted on : 2016-04-03 09:53 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Father Luis Maria Uribe has spent his adulthood serving patients suffering disease and discrimination
Father Luis Maria Uribe at Seongsimwon
Father Luis Maria Uribe at Seongsimwon

The man is barefoot. Regardless of the time or season, he never wears socks. He wears sandals, and his feet look tough.

It isn’t easy for feet to connect humans to the earth. That’s why people wrap their feet in cloth to protect them from the cold.

But he refuses to wear socks and takes the cold wind of winter in stride.

The man is not affected by the cold of life, either. When it’s cold, he lives in the cold. The weight of life feels light to him. And since his burden is so light, he shares the weight of life that others must bear.

The people around the man bear a burden that would be unimaginable for others. They are people with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, which was once thought to be a divine punishment.

Others are reluctant to stay with or even look at these patients, but the man loves them like his own flesh and blood. Even though he is not related to them at all, he has cared for and looked after Hansen’s patients in Korea as if they were his own brothers and sisters.

The man has been doing this for 36 years. When Hansen’s patients reach the end of their agony on earth, he is there to send them to heaven. When they breathe their last, he lovingly washes their twisted and decomposing bodies and clothes them in new garments. When they end their painful lives in this world, it is his hands that prepare them for the journey to heaven. He straightens out their rigid legs to dress them in their grave clothes. 

At one time there were as many as 500 Hansen’s patients here
Father Luis Maria Uribe never wears socks year round
Father Luis Maria Uribe never wears socks year round

“Brother, you have to relax now. That‘s the only way for me to dress you,” he says.

Around 550 Hansen’s patients have entrusted their final journey to him. For 150 of these, he has washed and clothed their bodies himself. No one else was willing to do so.

“Seeing the wounds on their bodies you couldn’t see while they were alive, seeing their withered bodies, all skin and bones, it occurs to me that this was the body of Jesus in agony, while he was on the cross. This helps me do the work with more joy,” he says.

Even today, he lives with about 140 Hansen’s patients. He‘s also friends with a dozen or so severely handicapped people.

He lives on the slopes of Jiri Mountain near Sancheong in South Gyeongsang Province, an area that was rife with guerillas during the Korean War.

After the war, this was where twenty or so Hansen’s patients ended their wandering across the country, here at Seongsimwon, a group home for those suffering from the disease.

After crossing the Gyeongho River, the Hansen’s patients would let the boat they had crossed on drift down the stream. Out of fear that the people living across the river would see them and force them to leave, the Hansen’s patients would stay in the hills during the day and only come down here to sleep at night.

Seongsimwon did not force Hansen’s patients to be sterilized (unlike the group home on Sorok Island), and at one time as many as 500 of them were living here.

The man is Father Luis Maria Uribe, 70, whose Korean name is Yu Ui-bae, and he first came to South Korea in 1976. When the 30-year-old Spanish priest arrived in Seoul in 1976, he groaned, “O Lord, is this really South Korea?”

The South Korea that he had heard about was a destitute country still recovering from the war. He had volunteered to come to a country that was 10,000 kilometers away from his home in order to live a life of service, but Seoul was a city of skyscrapers like New York, and its people were full of energy. 

Frequent stories about the horrors of war from his mother

Uribe grew up in the town of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the city was carpet bombed by Nazi Germany, which was supporting the Fascist regime of Franco. In the bombing, around 3,000 of the 7,000 residents of the town were slaughtered.

The Nazis bombed the town - whose defenders had a single automatic rifle among them - to test the performance of its new bombs and bombers. Spanish painter Pablo Picasso brought the Nazi brutality to the attention of the world with his famous painting called “Guernica.”

Uribe was born into a baker’s family, the eldest of two sons and one daughter. From an early age he dreamed of becoming a priest, thanks to the influence of an uncle who was a member of the Franciscan order. When Uribe was young, his mother - who had survived the bombing of Guernica - often spoke to him of the cruelty of war.

Uribe entered the Franciscan order at the age of 16. After completing his studies at the Arantzazu theological seminary, located in the Basque region, he was ordained as a priest.

After completing two years of missionary work in a poor village near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, located 4,000 meters above sea level, Uribe came to South Korea. He spent two years learning the Korean language at the Myeongdowon language school, in the Franciscan friary in Seoul, and then spent two and half years in Jinju in South Gyeongsang Province, Gangneung and Jumunjin in Gangwon Province and Jeju Island.

Then in 1980, he was assigned to Seongsimwon. This was when he finally began living with those in need, which was the life he had dreamed of.

“I was asked which country I wanted to go to for missionary work after my ordainment, I told them I wanted to go to Korea. At that time, there were eight Franciscan brothers in Korea. My idea was that I ought to serve in Korea, which was a country that had been at war when I was young,” he said.

There was a Hansen’s patient who also had cancer of the pancreas, six years older than Uribe, who the priest would take care of each day. While the patient was on his deathbed, spitting up blood, he asked Uribe to be a father to his two children. The patient’s children indeed called Uribe their father.

There was an old man with Hansen’s disease and stomach cancer who lived in dormitory for people living by themselves at Seongsimwon. This man’s only pleasure in life was talking to Uribe during his daily visits.

“In fact, though, I was the one who was being comforted,” Uribe recalls. “For someone like me living far from home, the old man‘s gentle voice was a consolation. I was so sad when he breathed his last.”

Even for Uribe, death is a sad farewell. One day, an adorable little girl who had always followed him around was on the way home from kindergarten when she was run over and killed by a truck.

Uribe had always brought the girl home himself, but he had been too busy to pick her up on the day that the accident occurred. Since the girl’s parents had Hansen‘s disease, Uribe had been like a parent to her.

Why did God take away such an innocent little girl so soon? Is God really out there?

This is how the priest answers: “God took that little girl so soon in order to spare her the hardship she would face in her life. God probably cried as well." 

A worn rope symbolizing poverty, chastity and obedience[%%IMAGE1%%]

Seongsimwon is a home that Hansen’s patients built with their own effort, despite their own pain, the prejudice and discrimination from people in the world and the stigma caused by the scarlet letter of leprosy.

The community is quite spacious, composed of four dormitories for families of Hansen‘s patients, one dormitory for Hansen’s patients who live alone, a three-story nursing home, a cathedral, a monastery and a convent. The facility costs 2 billion won (US$1.75 million) per year to operate, of which 70% is covered by the government and the other 30% by donations.

Uribe presides over the mass in the cathedral early each morning and spends the rest of the day with the Hansen’s patients.

“The people who are here are those who suffered from Hansen’s disease, but they no longer carry the bacteria. It’s impossible for them to transmit the disease. It’s the same as when ordinary people have a disease or a disability. We need to get rid of our prejudice,” the priest said.

There is one thing that worries Uribe. He is concerned that, if he comes down with Alzheimer’s when he is older, he may become a burden for his loved ones.

“At an advanced stage of the disease, many Alzheimer’s patients talk about their childhood. If that happened to me, I‘m afraid I might start speaking Spanish instead of Korean and that the people looking after me wouldn’t understand me. Am I worrying too much?”

Uribe says that he has no plan for his life. “I only think about today. Planning for the future is up to God. All I have to do is be diligent with the work I am given today,” he says.

He strictly rejects any possessions, in accordance with the teachings of Saint Francis. Hanging up in his room, which is less than seven square meters, is the text, “Those who love the poor while they are alive will have nothing to fear when they die.”

Regardless of the season, Uribe wears the same Franciscan habit, and around his waist is the cord of St. Francis. There are three knots tied in the cord, which symbolize poverty, chastity and obedience.

The knots have been worn smooth by his hands. Above his white beard, his vivid gaze is more dazzling than the blue sky.

By Lee Kil-woo, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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