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(LEAD) (Yonhap Interview) Italian nun spends decades in S. Korea to help lepers

All News 17:18 July 15, 2016

(ATTN: CORRECTS nun's name in 2nd para and caption)
By Hwang Seok-joo

GOCHANG, South Korea, July 15 (Yonhap) -- "I'd like to live a life helping leprosy patients and getting along with other locals at Hoam Village for the rest of my days," an Italian nun, who settled here 48 years ago, said in fluent Korean on Friday.

Lidia Tallone, as a missionary, came to the village in Gochang, 296 kilometers south of Seoul, which was a colony for lepers at that time. She was just 25 then.

Since then, she has treated people with leprosy, also called Hansen's disease, and has been of great help to the mobility impaired.

During an interview with Yonhap News Agency at the village, she looked back on herself at 19, when she first entered a nunnery in Italy.

The nun, who is now 73 years old, soon joined a missionary called Movimento Contemplativo Missionario Padre De Foucauld and started her sacred profession by caring for some 120 children orphaned by the war.

"I thought I have to live a life for many children rather than having a family and only caring for my own child," she recalled.

"Moreover, I had made up my mind to become a nun to realize, on behalf of my brother, a dream to enter priesthood, which he had but couldn't fulfill as he went to heaven."

Later, she heard that there were many war orphans and leprosy patients in South Korea, and so she decided to go there.

She came to the country as a member of a mission and settled in Hoam Village, where she poured her heart into caring for lepers, who were in terrible shape because there was no proper treatment, and whose appearances were hard to recognize.

To better understand and communicate with the villagers, she soon studied at the Korean language school of Yonsei University in Seoul.

Albeit busy with her missionary life, she studied Korean day and night, and became able to write in Korean and speak it two years later.

Tallone then went to Fontilles Hospital in Spain and learned more about Hansen's disease for three months to better understand the disease and better treat lepers in the Korean village.

"There was no remedy drug (in the village) at that time, and I barely cured the patients with a small amount of a drug that I had obtained from German relief agencies," she said.

"I also had children take as many vitamins as possible as I knew that they could get over the disease if they only had sufficient nutrition."

The most pitiful aspect of the disease was the widespread prejudice that it was highly contagious and that people could get infected only if they brushed against lepers, she reminisced.

"Because of that, schools didn't even accept children of leprosy patients," she said.

Her life in Korea was not easy as the country in the 1960s was still in economic difficulties, and she acquired a thrift habit, although she vowed frugality, obedience and chastity to be a nun.

When staying at a convent in Seoul to study Korean, she had to share a one-person room with her sister nun and cope with economic hardships.

Despite the difficulties, she cared for some 80 children living in the slums at that time.

"As I acquired a frugal habit, I've never carelessly spent a penny or used a sheet of paper," she said.

She is still looking after some 10 leprosy patients at Hoam Village, in which they now mingle with ordinary people.

"Even though the patients have gotten better, I'd like to spend the rest of my life in this place because a nun is also obliged to help neighborhoods through difficulties."

Hoam villagers have recently recommended her as a recipient of a merit of state order in recognition of her decadeslong sacrifices.

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