Remembering Sister Ruth Pfau, the ‘Mother Teresa of Pakistan’
The medical doctor and member of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, ministered to leprosy victims for decades. She died Aug. 19.
By Anto Akkara
KARACHI, Pakistan — As the government of Pakistan and the Church prepared for an unprecedented state funeral for a Catholic nun — Sister Ruth Katharina Martha Pfau — Aug. 19 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi, her associates, Church officials and the media paid glowing tributes to the nun of German origin.
A medical doctor belonging to the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, Sister Ruth — who landed in Pakistan in 1960 due to visa problems on her way to India and went on to help Pakistan combat leprosy — died Aug. 10 in Karachi at the age of 87.
“Sister Ruth was a fine example of healing, harmony and happiness,” Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, told the Register Aug. 15.
“Her patients — many of them deformed, crippled and pitiful — loved her because, while treating the dreadful disease, she also embraced them and showed them that she loved them as persons,” pointed out Archbishop Coutts.
“Among the doctors and down to the drivers, cleaners and other staff members, you will find Sindhis, Balochis, Pathans and a dozen-odd ethnic groups of different religions working together as one family. This is what always struck me whenever I went to the MALC” — the clinics the nun founded.
The network of more than 100 MALC (Mary Adeline Leprosy Center) centers in Pakistan stretches from the Thar Desert in southern Sindh to the barren hills of Balochistan to the northern borders with Iran and Afghanistan, Archbishop Coutts noted.
Born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1929, where her home was bombed in World War II, Pfau went to France to study medicine and later joined the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary.
Upon arrival in Karachi in 1960, Sister Ruth was touched by what she saw at the leprosy colony off Macleod Road in Karachi, a work of charity initiated three years earlier by another member of her congregation, Sister Bernice Vargasi from Mexico.
Sister Ruth founded the MALC in 1962 in Karachi; it included Pakistan’s first hospital dedicated to treating the disease and later extended its branches in all provinces of Pakistan.
“Dr. Pfau, for us, was a living legend, the moving spirit behind the leprosy-control program,” Mervyn Lobo, director of the MALC and associate of Sister Pfau since 1990, told the Register.
As the MALC network spread to far corners of Pakistan, Lobo said, Sister Ruth inspired the formation of the National Leprosy Control Program that worked closely with MALC. The result: In 1996, the World Health Organization declared Pakistan as one of the first countries in Asia to be free of leprosy.
Sister Ruth’s major role in eliminating leprosy, and her concern for the underprivileged in Pakistan, was resonant in the tribute Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi of Pakistan paid to the nun who had been conferred Pakistani citizenship and several national awards.
“Pfau may have been born in Germany — her heart was always in Pakistan,” said the prime minister within hours of her death.
“We will remember her for her courage, her loyalty, her service to the eradication of leprosy and, most of all, her patriotism,” Abbasi said.
Describing her service as “nothing less than a pure manifestation of God’s divine love,” the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of Pakistan’s Catholic Church noted that “Dr. Ruth worked tirelessly for the poor and the marginalized communities and was locally known as the ‘Mother Teresa of Pakistan.’”
“It was due to her endless struggle that Pakistan defeated leprosy,” the German Consulate in Karachi posted on Facebook.
Lobo, a Catholic associated with MALC for 27 years, described the nun as “a visionary who single-handedly structured the National Leprosy Control Program across the country.”
Sister Ruth also established Pakistan’s national training institute for leprosy technicians, and those seeking government employment had to complete a two-year diploma course via the center to join the various government leprosy agencies that worked in tandem with MALC.
“A messenger of peace, she worked as if there is no tomorrow,” recalled Lobo.
“Being a very spiritual person, she believed in actual service as worship to God. Though she suffered a lot of misery, this did not deter her. The name of our center building was named after her firm belief in the Holy Mother Mary,” he added.
“Sister Ruth Pfau was such a dedicated and selfless person that she infused a spirit of love and kindness in everyone who happened to meet her,” Peter Jacob, executive director of the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice, told the Register.
“My meeting with her was quite a spiritual experience, strengthening my belief in larger-than-life concepts and living up to egalitarian approaches. She proved that love and kindness can transcend all boundaries and survive in difficult circumstances,” said Jacob, who served as executive secretary and director of the NCJP for 26 years.
The MALC network has more than 270 staff, drawn from Pakistan’s many ethnic communities, and a medical team of a dozen doctors — most of them non-Christians. Among the doctors who long served under Sister Ruth’s leadership is Dr. Mutahir Zia, a Muslim who is the current medical director of MALC.
“When I passed my medical degree in 1988, I wanted to work in a charitable organization. Since most of the private hospitals were run on profit motives, I was lucky to join Dr. Pfau,” said Zia.
Describing Sister Ruth as a woman with “extraordinary compassion and courage,” Zia recalled, “Even when she had no money, she went on taking up new ventures and challenges. Wherever she went, she captured the peoples’ imagination with her simplicity. Many came forward with offers of help.”
During the earthquake of 2005, she moved to the mountains of Kashmir to build houses for the quake victims, including those affected by leprosy. Zia noted that Sister Ruth also cared for refugees from Afghanistan who were facing deportation and even ventured into jails to care for those in detention.
Among the numerous glowing tributes to the nun in the Pakistani media was an article in the leading English daily The Dawn, titled, “My First Meeting With Dr. Ruth Pfau, the Angel of Manghopir.”
Journalist Owais Tohid recounted his encounter with Sister Ruth as a journalist in training 26 years earlier, including her explanation of why she had dedicated her life to serving Pakistan’s lepers.
“Outcast, alienated, in miserable conditions without any medical facilities, and without normal human interactions,” she said of the suffering. “When I saw that, it changed my life.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.