The inspiring life of Ruth Pfau, leprosy doctor

When it comes to Christians, news from Pakistan in recent years has seldom been good.

An increasingly beleaguered minority in an Islamic republic, they have become targets of harassment and violent attacks, often motivated by tensions and conflicts between Islamists and the West on the world stage.

This week, however, brings a notable exception.

On Saturday there will be a state funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi for the German-born Catholic nun and doctor, Ruth Pfau, who died last week at the age of 87 after giving 50 years of her life to the service of patients with leprosy and other needs in Pakistan.

Announcing her death (and quoting a predecessor in office) Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi said:

“Dr Ruth came to Pakistan here 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. [Although she] may have been born in Germany, her heart was always in Pakistan.”

Dr Pfau was made an honorary citizen of Pakistan in 1988.

Like Mother Theresa of Calcutta, to whom she is often compared, Ruth Katharina Martha Pfau found her special vocation among the “poorest of the poor” in the post-independence era of the Indian sub-continent.

It happened, humanly speaking, by accident.

After converting to Catholicism while studying to be a doctor, she had joined a religious order in 1957. In 1960 she was on her way to a posting in southern India, when she found herself stuck in Karachi over a visa issue.

By chance, during the delay, she visited a leper colony in the city. The shock of the encounter moved her so much that she decided to dedicate herself to these souls. The BBC recalls:

“Well if it doesn’t hit you the first time, I don’t think it will ever hit you,” she told the BBC in 2010.

“Actually the first patient who really made me decide was a young Pathan.

He must have been my age – I was at this time not yet 30 — and he crawled on hands and feet into this dispensary, acting as if this was quite as if this was quite normal, as if someone has to crawl there through that slime and dirt on hands and feet, like a dog.” Continue reading


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