As we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, I’m reminded of a scholarship program in the Philippines. Let me explain…
It is said that, toward the beginning of his conversion, rich, young Francis rode his horse through the countryside and came upon a man with leprosy. Even though the sight and smell of the disfigured man repelled him, Francis nevertheless jumped down from his horse and kissed the man’s hand in a gesture of peace. When the man returned the kiss of peace, Francis was filled with joy. As he jumped back onto his horse and turned around to wave, the leprous man had disappeared. St. Francis always looked back on that encounter as a test from God — that he passed.
Today, inspired by their namesake, a group of nuns with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) live and work in the middle of a leper colony — the Filipino town of Tala. Well…it was a leper colony a generation ago. Since then, Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy) there has pretty much gotten under control. The stigma associated with it, however, remains on this generation. As a result, the people of Tala still struggle with rejection and extreme poverty. Small children suffer malnutrition and tuberculosis. Older youths face looming adulthood with no employable skills, compounded by job discrimination based on their address.
Even as the FMM sisters cherish their Franciscan vow of poverty, they are helping the people of Tala – especially the children – break free of the poverty that has bound their families for generations. With support from Cross Catholic Outreach, they offer two programs to help the descendants of lepers: At Our Lady of the Star Nursery, poor children receive nutritious meals and, if needed, TB medication.
The sisters also extend high school scholarships to the renowned Don Bosco Vocational School, where employers recruit skilled graduates regardless of their home address. Through the nuns’ guidance, these youths also perform community outreach as part of their spiritual formation. One frequent stop: The Tala Leprosarium. There, in the spirit of St. Francis, these young men and women carefully and lovingly trim the hair and nails of patients deformed by Hansen’s Disease —lepers. A modern-day ‘kiss of peace.’
“Lord, grant that I might not so much seek to be loved as to love.” St. Francis of Assisi