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    Pink Frangipani

    Love in a Leper Colony


    January 9, 2014

    Available languages: Deutsch, español

    • mary jo frantz

      Everyone should be lucky enough to experience a love such as this!!! What a beautiful and glorious experience!!! I wish them all the blessings of life and many more HAPPY ANNIVERSARIES!!!

    • adaeze

      waoh! I am almost in tears. this is pure love. May God help us to grow into this...

    • Martin and Becky

      What an amazing story. So much needed now where faithfulness in marriage is missing. It will inspire many to experience the richness in growing old together, and the comfort it brings through the many years of companionship.

    • George Nye

      Thank you for sharing this story. I'm doing some writing on love that may be a sequel to my newly published book, DADDY-CATCH!. So, this story came at a good time.

    • Debra Freeman

      An amazing love. One that we can all learn from. And what courage. And faith. And commitment. So close to the heart of Christ. Blessings to Damien and Maria, and many happy anniversaries.

    • Charles N. King

      What a lovely story of love and faith!!! I would like to meet these people even though it would be very unlikely. God bless them!

    A fiftieth wedding anniversary always deserves recognition, but this one was truly gold. When Damien and Maria made their wedding vows fifty years ago they were under no illusions. Banished to Sapucay, an isolated leper colony in the hinterlands of Paraguay, they were surrounded by crippled and disfigured fellow sufferers of the then-incurable disease. They asked each other if they would still love even when their fingers curled and their skin dried and cracked.

    My father had once worked as director of agriculture at Sapucay. When, retracing my family story, I returned to Sapucay more than half a century later – and decades after a cure for leprosy had been found – I was surprised to find some of the same people still living there. Though they could have returned to their homes and families, the lingering stigma in society was so strong that many chose to remain.

    Today Damien and Maria laugh as they recall the first time their glances met. The joy they exude is remarkable, considering all they have suffered. In earlier years when they were healthier, medicines to treat the disease were donated to be distributed free to the patients. However, the corrupt colony administration required the patients to pay. By the time Damien and Maria were able to afford the medication it was too late; the damage to their bodies had been done.

    Yet Damien and Maria are not bitter. Seeing God in the nature surrounding them and in the stars, they say, has helped them find peace, hope, and the strength to forgive. And both express thankfulness for all the friends they have made over the years. “One who has friends is alive, but one with no friends is dead.”

    photo of Damien and Maria

    Damien and Maria

    Damien is a gifted craftsman, despite his crippled hands and twisted fingers. After careful observation of the sun, he carved a sundial out of a stone in his garden that accurately reads the hour, day, and month of the year. But now his eyesight is failing. On a last attempt at carving a wooden figure of Francis of Assisi, he accidentally cut off the saint’s fingers. “St. Francis was known as the friend of lepers, so it’s appropriate he has no fingers,” he jokes. Unable to carve, he now contents himself with carefully tending a garden on the patch of dirt in front of the tiny wooden hut they call home.

    Maria is confined to a wheelchair with one leg amputated and is nearly deaf, but she shows no signs of self-pity. “She is the administrator of the house, and manages everything,” says Damien proudly.

    The love between them is visible and tender. Damien says they have made it this far only through dialogue, never letting a day end without resolving their differences. Their failing hearing creates new challenges, but they often understand the needs and thoughts of the other instinctively without even talking. “Every day we love each other more, and understand each other better.”

    The faithfulness of Damien and Maria despite all odds gives witness to a love that lasts; not a passing selfish infatuation but the love described in the well-known verse: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Cor. 13: 4-7)

    Another Sapucay patient, Maria Weiss, was separated from her husband Adolfo and young son when she was found to have leprosy. She assumed the parting would be forever. She watched how the disease and separation destroyed the marriages of other patients:

    There were always men looking for a partner with whom to set up house. All the women were sought after, no matter what their age. While I was there, two seventy-year-old women married…

    One woman was so scared when her husband took leprosy that she moved away and left no address, for she didn’t want letters that might carry the infection. But I found couples where the opposite had happened and the wife had accompanied her husband to the colony when he had taken leprosy. There were women in the colony who had lived fifteen or twenty years with severely ill husbands, without taking any precautions to protect themselves, and they had not taken the disease. When I first heard this, I was very surprised and asked how this could be, and I was told, “You won’t get it if you are not afraid for your own skin!”

    I also noticed that many very poor women living near the colony were only too glad to come and live as wives or compañeras to patients, for then they got an assured ration of food free. They were more afraid of hunger than of leprosy.

    It would be almost twenty years before Maria was reunited with Adolfo, who had meanwhile joined my community. The trials of life in the leper colony had changed her outlook in surprising ways:

    I found my thoughts had completely changed since those early days in the colony. Then my thoughts were entirely about me or mine. I was sorry for myself and I worried endlessly about my husband and my son. Now I hardly ever thought about myself. I knew that just as God had cared for me all these years, so he could care for my husband and child. So I did not worry anymore but trusted them to His hands, for I knew He could care for them better than I could.

    And I began to realize how many things I would not have known if I had stayed happily at home, with husband, son, house, and farm nearby. For at the colony I was forced to find strength and comfort in the Bible and the hymnal. I had also learned that God can come and give a joy such as I had never heard of when I had all the things around me that folk prize most in life.

    In collecting stories for my most recent book, Rich in Years, I interviewed dozens of couples who, like Damien and Maria and Adolfo and Maria, had celebrated fifty years together. A few common threads began to emerge. Their lives were not easy; many of them had endured suffering and hardship. Some survived the Great Depression, while others were veterans of the many wars of the last century. Yet, as these stories of love in a leper colony show, hardship can strengthen faith and engender faithfulness. Is it possible that the comfort and affluence we enjoy today might be more of a threat to lifelong marriage than the hardships our parents or grandparents knew?

    Perhaps more importantly, most of these couples also had a deep faith in God. They were taught moral values by their parents and teachers in childhood. They stressed the value of listening to one’s conscience regarding right and wrong. Their lives show what a difference it can make when a child grows up in a two-parent home – when husband and wife keep their marriage vows for life, “until death parts you.” Sadly, my generation has for the most part failed to pass on this legacy to our children.

    Does that mean we should be resigned to the fact that the majority of today’s marriages will fail to stand the test of time? To be sure, a healthy family life in childhood is the best foundation for any marriage. But I am convinced that with Christ, and the support of the loving, caring church community that Jesus envisions in his Sermon on the Mount, there is hope for every marriage.

    Contributed By JohannChristophArnold Johann Christoph Arnold

    A noted speaker and writer on marriage, parenting, education, and end-of-life issues, Arnold was a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities.

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