CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 9 December 2017

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The Angel of the Lepers flies no more

MACAU (SE): Known as The Angel of the Lepers, Father Gaetano Nicosia is being honoured in death, not because he was ostracised from society, but because of a lifetime of care for those who as victims of Hansen’s Disease struggled at the margins of society throughout their lives.
 
In a remote corner of Coloane Island off the coast of Macau, a colony of outcasts affected by Hansen’s Disease that had been abandoned by both the society and government of the former Portuguese enclave, became his life’s mission.
 
Father Gianni Criveller writes in a tribute to the Salesian priest’s life, “The despair was such that some among the hundreds killed themselves. But in August 1963, Father Nicosia asked to be allowed to move there, transforming the colony in a very short space of time.”
 
Father Criveller notes that houses were refurbished, drinking water and electricity supplied and medical care offered. A farm and workshop for various trades were built. Work was paid and decent education arrived.
 
A village council was established to reach consensus on decisions. Father Nicosia lived among the people, bringing dignity, well-being and health with him.
 
But he also brought the Christian faith. “It was hell,” one resident of the island said. “It is now a heaven; Father Gaetano is our angel.”
 
Father Criveller describes the account of the life of Father Nicosia as reading like a gospel story on altruism, goodness and the imitation of Christ.
 
Like Jesus, who was prepared to stand with the Leper, the most stigmatised and despised people of his time, Father Nicosia was prepared to stand with the same people of his era, who were still referred to as the Leper and still the most stigmatised and ostracised people of his time.
 
“All who met him, even for a few moments, were struck by his goodness, joy and sincere enthusiasm,” Father Criveller, from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, says.
 
The former bishop of Hong Kong and fellow Salesian, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, eulogised him as turning the home of a backward group of outcasts into a human haven.
 
It began with proper medicine and a community kitchen serving good food. With proper medical attention and diet, bit by bit the former colony became free of the dreaded Hansen’s Disease.
 
In 1968, with the support of Bishop Paulo José Tavares, Father Nicosia set up the Lar De Nossa Senhora Da Penha, a rehabilitation centre for children with physical difficulties in Macau.
 
Then in 1977 came the Centre de Santa Lucia, a residential home for people with mental and physical illnesses.
 
Father Nicosia died on November 6 at St. Mary’s Home for the Aged in Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong. He was 102-years-old.
 
Born in Sicily in 1915, he lost his father to the trenches of World War I, leaving his mother to raise him and his older brother alone. But Sicily is a long way from the theatre of the life that young Gaetano was destined to live.
 
He joined the Salesians in 1935 and two years later came to Hong Kong where he made his first profession in 1937. But his health was weak and his novice master wanted to send him home to Italy.
 
Father Criveller relates that he then entrusted his future to his superior, Father Carlo Braga. Father Nicosia told Father Criveller, “I went to him in tears to stop my repatriation. He looked at me and listened to me, and trusted me.”
 
Father Braga is known today as the Don Bosco of China and is currently up for beatification.
 
And so Father Nicosia spent World War II in Macau, those years during which thousands of refugees arrived, when people died of hunger and the Salesians had 800 students to care for in their school.
 
But still he said that as a young seminarian with the Salesians, along with the students in their care, he survived through the thoughtfulness of the governor, who gave rice to the school every Friday when the boat arrived from Thailand.
 
As a man who lived through the most traumatic times of the 20th century, Father Nicosia suffered through two world wars, a revolution and experienced the plight of the refugee who takes to the road for safety.
 
In 1946, he was ordained in the beautiful church of St. Joseph in Macau and with the cessation of the hostilities of the war followed his compatriots into China.
 
But it was to be a short lived apostolate, as foreign missionaries were forced out by the encroaching Communist revolutionary forces and he, along with others, retreated back to Hong Kong, where he took up appointments in schools and orphanages, including St. Louis School and Aberdeen Technical School.
 
But the mission that he had promised Jesus he would take up as a boy was looming. He resisted his superior’s suggestion that he go to Colombia and in the early 1960s he took the most important decision of his whole life and made the life-defining move to Coloane Island.
 
He inspired others to take an interest and two well-known priests from Macau, Father Luis Ruiz and Father Lancelot Rodrigues, as well as the only blessed to have lived a significant period in Hong Kong, Father Gabriele Allegra, spent time with him.
 
A well-known Macau architect, Oseo Acconci, designed and oversaw the building of an elegant church dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows and the distinguished sculptor, Francesco Messina, crafted a bronze crucifix that to this day dominates the front of the building.
 
By 2011, all the residents of the once isolated colony were declared cured and Father Nicosia accepted his life’s mission as fulfilled, retiring back to Hong Kong.
 
He was decorated by both the Italian and Macau governments and his story has been recorded in a documentary by Angelo Paratico and Ciriaco Affendu, Father Nicosia: The Angel of the Lepers.
 
Although he lived to a great age, he could not catch up with his older brother who predeceased him at the age of 105! But to mark his 100th birthday, Cardinal Zen took him to Rome where he met with Pope Francis.
 
The Angel of the Lepers may fly no more, but his memory will live long in the hearts and memories of the outcasts to whom he brought dignity, as well as love and the faith, then finally acceptance by the wider society as being Lepers No More.
 
May he rest in peace.

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