Life on the Other Side of the Tracks: A Visit to the Leper Centre and Colony in Titagarh founded by Mother Teresa in 1979
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
Throughout history, few diseases have been as dreaded as the horrible affliction known as leprosy. It was so common and severe among ancient peoples that God gave Moses extensive instructions to deal with it as evidenced in chapters 13 and 14 from Leviticus. The belief that only God could heal leprosy is key to understanding the miracle that proves Jesus' identity in Mark 1:40-45.
Leprosy in the Bible appears in two principle forms. Both start with discoloration of a patch of skin. The disease becomes systemic and involves the internal organs as well as the skin. Marked deformity of the hands and feet occur when the tissues between the bones deteriorate and disappear.
In Jesus' time, lepers were forced to exist outside the community, separated from family and friends and thus deprived of the experience of any form of human interaction. We read in Leviticus 13:45-46 that lepers were to wear torn clothes, let their hair be disheveled, and live outside the camp. These homeless individuals were to cry "Unclean, unclean!" when a person without leprosy approached them. Lepers suffered both the disease and ostracism from society. In the end, both realities destroy their victims' lives. One may indeed wonder which was worse: the social ostracism experienced or the devastating skin lesions. The technical word for leprosy is Hansen’s disease.
For our second to the last day in the Bengal Province in India, Prevain Devendran and I spent part of today in the Ghandiji Prem Navas Leprosy Centre and Colony in Titagarh, located about 25 kilometers from Kolkata. Mother Teresa is well known for her hospices for the destitute and dying in Calcutta (Kolkata). Less famous are the leprosy centres run by her Missionaries of Charity. The centre provides medical care for patients, but much more as well. Nearly 1,000 leprosy patients and ex-patients work, eat and live at the centre.
To say that it was a profoundly moving visit would be an understatement. The centre and home for leprosy patients was established in 1979 by Mother Teresa. The extensive, sprawling property is located adjacent to the railroad tracks, formerly the only place lepers were allowed to live. Here on the outskirts of one of India’s largest cities (and one of the world’s poorest), the phrase “the other side of the tracks” carries an entirely new meaning — when meeting people living with leprosy, you find them living on the tracks. People with leprosy were not allowed to use the main roads and were only allowed to use the train tracks. That law existed until the mid-1980s.
The Centre features a huge weaving factory, fully administered by the patients, and residents and overseen by the Missionary Brothers of Charity, after it had been entrusted to them by Mother Teresa and the Missionary Sisters. Inside the factory, residents make bed covers, bandages, clothing and, most notably, all of the white saris with the famous blue stripes that are worn by all of the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity around the world. All of the renowned habits of the sisters are handmade here in the Leper Centre and Colony.
Mother Teresa once wrote: "The fullness of our heart becomes visible in our actions: how I behave with this leper, how I behave with this dying person, how I behave with this homeless person. Sometimes, it is more difficult to work with down-and-outs than with the people who are dying in our hospices, for the latter are at peace, waiting to go to God soon.
"You can draw near to the sick person, to the leper, and be convinced that you are touching the body of Christ. But when it is a drunk person yelling, it is more difficult to think that you are face-to-face with Jesus hidden in him. How pure and loving must our hands be in order to show compassion for those beings!
"To see Jesus in the spiritually most deprived person requires a pure heart. The more disfigured the image of God is in a person, the greater must our faith and our veneration be in our search for the face of Jesus and in our ministry of love for him."
Most of us will never encounter leprosy patients. Nor will we know what it means to be completely ostracized by society. But there are other forms of leprosy today, which destroy human beings, kill their hope and spirit, and isolate them from society. Who are the modern lepers in our lives, suffering with physical diseases that stigmatize, isolate and shun, and cut others off from the land of the living? What are the social conditions today that force people to become the living dead, relegating them to cemeteries and dungeons of profound indignity, poverty, despair, isolation, violence, sadness, depression, homelessness, addiction and mental illness?
Let us not fear the sepulchers of this earth. Let us enter those hovels and bring a word of consolation and a gesture of healing to others. In the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta: "Let us do so with a sense of profound gratitude and with piety. Our love and our joy in serving must be in proportion to the degree to which our task is repugnant."
It was a very moving experience to walk amidst scores of people afflicted with leprosy, and weavers busy at work, to visit the seriously ill in various wards, and to see the children of the patients and residents at play. In the midst of what could be a veritable hell hole on earth, I experienced tremendous joy and great human dignity among these outcasts of society “on the other side of the tracks.”
(CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)