A priest who sacrificed everything for South Sudan 將一生獻給南蘇丹的李泰锡神父

posted Mar 8, 2019, 6:20 PM by Don Bosco   [ updated Apr 8, 2019, 10:33 PM ]

Father John Lee, S.D.B., a Korean Salesian of many talents who committed himself to the people in the Sudanese village of Tonj, where they used to call him Father Jolly. He died of colon cancer at the age of 48, nevertheless he showed how to be a hope for the others.

Father Lee Tae-Seok (李泰锡) sacrificed everything in Africa's Sudan. His last gift was the touching human documentary "Don't Cry for Me Sudan". In February 2010, a small village called Tonj in South Sudan. A brass band of Tonj marches through the village. The boys in the front were holding the picture of a man. They are crying for Father Jolly, who was the father of Tonj, a doctor, a teacher, a conductor, and an architect. 

Fr. Lee was a Catholic priest and medical doctor who started a clinic to help patients with Hansen's disease (leprosy) and war-torn victims in southern Sudan. He also began a school and taught music, remarkably creating a brass band. Fr Lee had worked tirelessly for nine years as part of the Salesian mission in war-ravaged southern Sudan. 

Late Father Lee visited a small village named Tonj in South Sudan, which was called the worst hellhole among the international aid workers. Sudan became independent from Egypt and Britain in 1956, yet suffered 17 years of civil war and subsequent conflicts between the North and the South. Father Lee devoted himself to healing the wounded body and soul of the people in Tonj.

He gave musical instruments and taught music to children who had been scarred by the war and forced out to battlefield with guns as big as their body. 

Father Lee originally graduated from medical school to be a doctor. He was the pride and joy of a large family with a mother who worked as a seamstress in the market while raising her ten children. Despite his mother’s opposition, he became a priest and voluntarily left for Sudan. South Sudan was a dangerous place, being in the middle of a civil war, with very little missionary volunteers. For the villagers suffering from poverty, hunger, injury, illness, and loss of hope, Father Lee gave them not only his medical skills but also art and a warm heart.
As he was the only doctor in Tonj, three hundred patients came to see him daily. Some would walk more than 100 kilometers and knock on his door at night. Lacking space, Father Lee built a hospital with self-made bricks. Lacking electricity, he used solar energy to run a refrigerator to store vaccines which otherwise would have spoiled in the hot weather. Father Lee also built and managed a school for the 11 grades of elementary, middle, and high school, and himself taught mathematics and music. The children of Tonj found great hope at the school.
A true missionary, Father Lee once said: “Because of the extreme poverty, I had planned many things in the beginning. But I realized over time that being with them was the most important thing. I wanted to be with them, no matter what obstacle.”

Father John was born into a poor Catholic family in 1962, the ninth of ten children – another of whom has also been ordained. John’s father died when he was aged nine. After his father’s death John’s mother brought up the family by herself, counting the pennies earned from her work as a seamstress. His mother encouraged him to study medicine. On qualifying, he practiced as a surgeon in the Korean army but repeatedly he felt the call to be a priest. 

John joined the Salesians. He was asked many times why and what attracted him to the Salesians? He said he was “fascinated by their music and sport as well as their loving, spontaneous, free and family style of relating”. 
While searching for the best way to be a doctor and priest, he went to Rome in 1997 and happened to meet a few missionaries from Kenya and Tanzania. He went to Africa with them and stayed a short while in Tonj, southern Sudan, where he visited an impoverished village of a Dinka sub-tribe and a colony of Hansen’s disease patients. 

It was the first time he had been in a colony of lepers – men and women with Hansen’s disease. He was so disturbed by the rotting limbs and squalor that in a state of shock he went off into the bush to get the disturbing encounter out of his sight and mind. The Salesians working there did not expect to see the young army doctor again.

They were wrong.To their surprise Fr John wrote to them after his ordination in June 2001 to say that he would be coming soon. He explained that working among the lepers would be “the best way to be a doctor, priest and Salesian”. He always remembered what Jesus said “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”and behave like it.

The memory of the lepers never left him and in 2001 he announced that he would “be a better missionary among the lepers than anywhere else.” Arriving at a place called Tonj, Father John began the arduous task of erecting a medical clinic. Using the same hands that would treat 300 patients daily, he personally constructed the building to which desperate Sudanese would bring their illnesses. In his jeep he went out searching for the lepers.
After the clinic came classrooms for a school and other facilities. In the absence of anyone else to do it he would teach the children maths and music. A gifted musician, Father John persuaded Korean friends to send a crate-load of instruments and uniforms and he founded and trained the Don Bosco Brass Band. Fr John passed on his love of music to the youngsters he taught. The children said that they wanted to melt guns and knives into clarinets and trumpets. The Don Bosco Brass Band is now the most famous music group in southern Sudan. 

On his deathbed, Fr Lee invoked the figure of St John Bosco, then he awoke and said: “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be all right.” He was referring to Sudan. Perhaps he sensed that the south was on the verge of a historic breakthrough. This January, almost exactly a year after Fr Lee’s death, the southern Sudanese voted for independence. Some believe that Fr Lee may have had an intercessory role in this. At his funeral, Fr Farrington Ryan, the Salesian delegate to Sudan, gave a speech asking Fr Lee to “implore the good Lord to give us peace in Sudan”. 


This, however, was not the end of the story.

The film-maker, Koo Soo-Hwan, returned to Sudan and interviewed many of the families of the Dinka warriors whose lives had been so profoundly touched by Father John’s humanitarian work. The film that emerged was “Don’t Cry For Me Sudan” – taking its title from the Dinka boys who weep as they carry a picture of “Father Jolly” through the village of Tonj as they hold their own funeral in his memory. They are members of Father John’s brass band. Not much given to public displays of emotion these young people and their families are tearful as they describe the acute loss they experienced in learning that their priest and doctor would not be returning to them. A copy of the Korean movie has now been made with English subtitles and can be seen below. If you want your own copy, please let us know!

Don't cry for me Sudan from Ass.ne Missioni D. Bosco ONLUS on Vimeo.

Writing courtesy of David Alton, Kim Heung-sook , Mary O'Regan, and Theresa Kim Hwa-young,