By Purushottam Nayak
Puri: Hundreds of Hindus and Christians in Odisha on February 11 commemorated the birth centenary of a Polish missionary who served leprosy patients in India for 56 years after surviving a German concentration camp.
“Father Marian Zelazek was a man of great compassion. His life and work convey the message that society can progress only when it cares for every individual,” said Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in his homily during the centenary Mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Puri.
More than 2,500 people, including Polish Ambassador Adam Burakowski, Bishop Jerzy Mazur of Elk, Poland, and Divine Word Vice General Father Robert Kisala, attended the centenary programs held at the coastal town some 60 km south of Bhubaneswar, capital of Odisha state in eastern India.
Father Zelzek, a Divine Word missionary had set up Karunalaya (abode of mercy) Leprosy Care Centre at Puri.
“Today (Father Zelazek) is alive and active for his sacrificial, committed and dedicated work for the poor, needy, sick and suffering,” said the archbishop, who is also a Divine World missionary.
The Polish missionary “had no hesitation to touch a leper. His loving service inspires us to become more human. That is why he is praised the land of Jagannath,” the prelate said referring to Puri’s presiding Hindu deity, Lord Jagannath (Lord of Universe).
The Polish ambassador hailed the missionary as an extraordinary man who lived the spirit of the Catholic Church to care for the needy, poor, sick and suffering.
Bishop Mazur said Father Zelazek came to India “not to convert but to teach people that God loves them.”
Archbishop Barwa and others present stressed the need for launching the canonization process for the Polish missionary.
Father Zelazek, who was shortlisted in 2002 and 2003 for the coveted Nobel Peace Prize for his work among leprosy patients, died on May 2, 2006, at the age of 89. Thousands of Hindus of Puri, especially leprosy patients, believed the Polish missionary was one their ancestors reborn as a Catholic missionary, an obituary on him noted.
He helped also farmers to trace water sources. They believed the missionary had magical powers to identify the underground water source by using his unique locket and chain.
Divine Word Father Baptist D’Souza, current director of Karunalaya, said the Catholic congregation faithfully carries on the mission and legacy left behind by Father Zelazek. Through efforts and works of the Divine Word priests, the “Bapa (the father) continues to inspire everyone and lives in the hearts of the people he loved.”
The Poland government in 1997 conferred on him their national award for invaluable contribution for bridging the relationship between India and Poland.
Father Zelazek was born on January 30, 1918, in Paledzie, a village near Poznan city in Poland, as the seventh of 16 children of Stanislaw and Stanislawa. Three young and the family adopted two orphan children.
In 1926, crisis in Europe forced the family to sell the property and move to the nearby town of Poznan where they managed a shop.
Zelazek joined the Divine Word congregation In 1932 and joined their novitiate five years later. His novice master Father Ludwik Mzyk, who was among 108 people Pope John Paul II beatified in 1999 in Warsaw..
Poland came under German Nazy rule when Zelazek was in novitiate. Since the religious studies did not suited the interests of the invading German Army, the German secret police Gestapo gave them an option to leave the house and military service in the central Poland.
The young novices refused and on May 20, 1940, covered trucks took away the 26 “obstinate” seminarians, to the concentration camp at Dachau. “It did not take too long for us to realize that we were in the death camps,” the missionary recalled during his stay in India.
At the end of first year in the camp, 14 seminaries died, all aged between 20 and 22. “They did not die of bullets or of any violence; but out of exhaustion due to the harsh and inhuman living conditions in the camp,” he recalled. The remaining seminarians, including Zelazek, were rescued by the American army on April 29, 1945.
The Polish priest had acknowledged that his five years in the concentration camp had prepared him for his future life as a missionary in India. “The miracle of a man is not how far he has sunk, but in how magnificently he has risen,” said the citation of an award conferred on him by the Dr. Radhanath Foundation Trust.
The more he witnessed the brutal destruction of life at Dachau, the greater was his determination to live on and to help others to live, if ever he got a chance to come out of Dachau.
On his release, he was sent to Rome to complete his priestly studies. He made his final vows in 1948, the same year he was ordained a priest.
After the ordination he ministered to the Polish migrants in Naples for a year. Father Zelazek had admitted his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, leader of India’s freedom struggle, and he wanted to work in the big country. His congregation adopted the “Sambalpur Mission” in Odisha the same year Father Zelazek was ordained.
He was among the first priests to volunteer to work in the new mission. He arrived in India on March 21, 1950, and learnt the local languages. He served as the secretary of the Catholic Board of Education that administered Church-run schools in the new mission. He paid special attention to the education of girl children. Education helped many tribal children reached high positions in the government and other administrative departments.
At the age of 57, Father Zelazek was appointed to a small parish in Jagannath Puri under the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar. People of Puri, unlike those in the Sambalpur Mission, consisted of high caste Hindus, well-educated and self-conscious, proud devotees of Lord Jagannath. Many were outcaste too. The town also had hundreds of leprosy patients begging around the Jagannath temple, the streets and the beach.
The Polish missionary reached to all groups, besides attending to the pastoral needs local Catholics and two communities of religious sisters. He got in touch with the religious heads and experts of Hinduism and Buddhism.
The District Magistrate of Puri drew Father Zelazek’s attention to the plight of the leprosy affected in the city. At his request he started visiting their enclaves on his bicycle. It took quite some time for the leprosy patients to trust the white man, who washed and bandaged their wounds.
The priest set up a small shed to attend to the patients and named it Karunalaya. The Sisters of Charity accompanied assisted him in Karunalaya. A Brahmin doctor volunteered to assist him. The doctor helped the priest to open a laboratory to test the suspected cases and to administer medicines.
However, some people accused him of trying clandestinely to convert the lepers to Christianity. The district administration appointed a probe team, which reported that no leprosy patient of Karunalaya had changed their religion.
When the priest contacted leprosy patients first time in 1957, they lived in temporary shelters, under trees or by roadside. They eked out a living by begging.
He gathered wandering children under a tree and began a school for them. By 1982 he was able to initiate Beatrix School where even children of other communities now study.
Sudhansubala Patnaik the teacher of the Beatrix School hailed Father Zelazek as “true follower of justice and he was a symbol of peace and service.”
Karunalaya opened a museum on the priest on February 10.