Very few Americans are familiar with the work of one our greatest humanitarians, the late Dr. Ruth Pfau. The German-born nun and physician devoted more than half a century of her life to the cause of eradicating leprosy in Pakistan and died last week at the age of 87.
Pfau was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1929. Her earliest memories were of a world disfigured by evil: the flash of swastikas, the inexplicable disappearance of Jewish schoolmates, the screams of friends and neighbors during Allied bombing campaigns. As an undergraduate studying medicine at Mainz she met a Dutch concentration camp survivor who spoke of her ability to forgive those who had imprisoned her. Her encounter with this exemplar of mercy changed Pfau indelibly. She was received into the Catholic Church and after completing her medical studies she joined the Daughters of the Heart of Mary.
Later, as a missionary nun assigned to work in Bombay she found herself held up with visa issues in Karachi, Pakistan. Here by another providential turn of events she happened to visit a so-called leper colony in which sufferers from Hansen’s disease had been left to die in conditions of indescribable agony. Pfau saw this and refused to leave. At first she worked with nothing but a tent. Three years later she was able to found a clinic, the first of what would eventually be more than 150, many of them in areas of astonishing remoteness. Her patients, many of them children, often came to her from caves or remote hills where they had been left by relations who feared that seeking treatment for them would spread their infection.
In 1996, Pakistan was declared officially leprosy-free, and the vast network of hospitals and clinics Pfau established continue to this day to provide treatment for a variety of illnesses, including tuberculosis, and to coordinate relief services in the event of natural disasters.
In the words of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Pfau “may have been born in Germany, but her heart was always in Pakistan,” where she came “at the dawn of a young nation, looking to make lives better for those afflicted by disease, and in doing so, found herself a home.” It is unsurprising that in her adopted country she was one of the most admired living people or that, in this officially Muslim nation, her Catholic requiem at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi will be an official state funeral.
In the rotting flesh of Pakistan’s lepers Pfau saw the beauty of men and women made in the image of God. Her example reminds us that the world, even at the worst of times and in the most wretched and miserable of places, can be full of light.