A SHORT STORY OF FATHER MARIAN ZELAZECK
Father Marian was born in Poland on Jan 30th 1918. On Sept 18th 1948 he entered into the Order of the Divine Word Missionaries in Rome. His wish was to be sent in India, to Sambalpur in the state of Orissa, where he arrived in March 1950.
He was a student in theology in Poznan, when the II World War started, the country was invaded by Hitler and he was sent to the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Southern Germany. There he was kept prisoner from 1940 to 1945, witnessing the most terrible holocaust of thousands of innocents, brutally killed through starvation, torture and assassination.
While there, he made a vow: to dedicate his life to create a better and safer world for the most needed ones, so that none would starve or die in agony, deprived of his/her human dignity.
Miraculously he survived to that terrible experience. When he was set free, in April 29th 1945, he didn’t feel any revenge, but instead his heart was filled with even more faith in God and in human beings.
Father Marian worked for 56 years in Orissa, spending 25 years in Sambalpur and Rourkela, while the remaining 31 years he spent in the holy city of Puri.
In Sambalpur he worked among the tribal and indigenous population, giving them an education. In Puri and in its surroundings he worked with the lepers and the downtrodden, helping them to have a shelter, food, medicines and a human dignity.
When Father Marian passed on April 30th 2006, he was near the lepers, the friends whom he loved so much, as he always wished.
One of them said: ”This man was a great Soul and a Saint, a real Man of God. Through his presence here, he made Puri, the Holy City of Lord Jagannath, even holier and also a better place for everyone to live”.
“It is not difficult to be good – did Father Marian say often – if you really want it”.
I was asked to answer to some questions about Father Marian, on what an impact he made on my life. The reason for such questions raises from some events that recently happened in Poland.
A young child, who was 2 years old, son of a Polish family who knew Father Marian, was unexpectedly healed from a lever cancer. The physicians were not able to give a scientific explanation to such an event, saying that only some extraordinary event can be occurred.
The second event is that the mother of a Polish film maker, friend of Father Marian, was also healed instantly from a cancer in an advance stage. Also in this case the physicians could not find a scientific explanation to it.
After those events the Bishop of Bhubaneshwar decided to open a process of beatification for Father Marian and to collect all personal memories of all those who came in close contact with him.
A WITNESS OF FATHER MARIAN
1.Did you know Fr. Marian Zelazek? How and when did you come to know him?
2.How did you meet Fr. Marian for the first time and what was your impression about him?
The first time that I met Father Marian Zelazek was in the winter of 1986, when I first visited India. When I was in Puri, I was introduced to an Italian nun who was working with Father Marian at the Lepers’ Colony. She was Sister Eugenia, of the Sisters of Charity Congregation. I had been traveling for many months in India and it was it was very nice to talk with someone in Italian. I remember at the beginning I had some trouble in translating some words in my mind before saying them in Italian! But I felt very much at ease because Sister Eugenia, who was nearly 90, reminded me of another Sister Eugenia I had met in the same year in Rome. Both had worked with lepers; one in India and the other in Africa.
One afternoon, Sister Eugenia invited me to visit the Lepers’ Colony with the nuns. They were working at the dispensary while the doctor was visiting the lepers in the hospital.
Father Marian was there taking care of the lepers like a real father with his children. He was interacting with the doctor to find the best solution for each person. He was always counseling them with the most positive attitude even in the worst of situations.
Sister Eugenia introduced me to him and, knowing that I was from Italy, he immediately started to talk perfectly in Italian. Later I realized he also spoke perfect German, Spanish and several Indian languages.
3. Many people called him ‘Bapa’ while he reached out in compassion to the needy, the poor and the leprosy-affected people of Puri. Has his selfless service made any impact on you?
When the doctor finished visiting all the patients, Father spent some time showing me around the whole colony. He had started the colony some years before. At the beginning I was a little scared, since I was meeting so many lepers for the first time.
In western countries, the mere utterance of the word “leprosy” causes an almost ancestral feeling of fear to arise, and sometimes, as I saw, it’s not so easy to control one’s own emotions. But Father made everything very simple, showing me that the lepers can be cured and that by taking the prescribed medications they are not contagious at all.
Still my subconscious mind was doubtful. To see the open wounds, the missing parts of the bodies accompanied by the terrible smell, was quite shocking for me. But at the same time, I felt the confidence and the deep love of that missionary, and slowly, I began feeling at ease with him, like at home.
When Father was introducing them to me, I saw how much love he was giving them. I remember the first time I met the lepers, how extremely happy their faces were when I shook hands with them. All over the world a leper is considered literally an “untouchable”. So touching their hands, even someone with no fingers at all, and watching their eyes, you can see how precious that simple gesture is to them—the simple act of touching an untouchable. In those few seconds I saw their eyes glowing, sometimes also shedding some tears, because I simply shared my love with them. I will never forget that just one touch, a small contact, filled their hearts, and at the end, also filled my own heart. It’s like two hearts melting into one love.
Later, I learned how Father Marion expressed that feeling: “Hunger for love”. If you feed hungry people, they may still be starved for love. In that touch something happens that really moves you. And it moves you forever.
Following Father Marian around the colony, I saw all the little rooms where they lived. They had families––healthy children. But these children were not able to go to school because their parents were lepers. Their only chance was to attend the Beatrix School that Father Marian had built just for them. These healthy children are still not allowed to attend a normal school due to the old caste traditions and prejudice against them. Father Marion’s Beatrix School was these children’s only hope to get an education, to have the opportunity find a job, and to have families of their own.
4. Can you say what your feelings were, when you met Fr. Marian again and again?
I visited Father Marian every year. I began to realize that his plan to give the children an education was the key to redeem their lives and save them from the prejudice of leprosy, the endless suffering they endured, and the deep moral pain that all societies in every country inflicted upon them, for centuries and centuries.
Due to Father Marion’s efforts, the lepers and their families were not living at the side of the road anymore––they had a shelter now, a simple roof on real bricks. Bricks that Father taught them to prepare by themselves. They had running water to wash themselves. They had a kitchen to cook rice and dahl, chapatti and vegetables. It was called the “Merciful Kitchen”, la “Cucina della Misericordia”. There was fresh milk every day for all the children. There were eggs, enough that they could also sell them to the nearby hotels. There were fresh vegetables from the garden, and coconuts to drink and to cook. There were fibers to use for the ropes and carpets they made to sell. And also shoes––special shoes for their wounded feet.
Father Marian had started something unthinkable for a thousand downtrodden and outcaste souls. He gave them a home. Not just a shelter, but a place where they felt loved and valued and where they could give love. A place where they could regain their right to be considered human beings with dignity. A place where they could not only be children of God, but to also become human citizens with families and children, where their hopes and dreams could come true.
5. What comes to your mind, when you think of Fr. Marian?
Many times I thought of him living in the Nazi concentration camp with thousands of starving and dying prisoners, and of all the terrible situations he went through, all the horrible cruelty that was happening around him, surviving moment by moment. I always thought of him like a blacksmith beating the iron and working on a special jewel: his faith. His faith was hammered and heated to an incredible point of fusion in the forge by the flames of desperation, pain and agony. If I can imagine hell, it must have been like that. His faith was beaten more and more to an extreme level of endurance.
Any human being who could survive such an experience normally would avoid all memories of it. But not Father Marian. After so many years, he was still there, in the middle of pain and human desperation, among prisoners of the worst illness: leprosy.
7. Many people consider Fr. Marian as a Man of God; what do you say and why?
Definitely I never met a man who had such contagious faith, a glowing faith. A faith that could be forged and empowered only by the living presence of God. That’s why I never had a doubt that Father Marian was a real Man of God. <6. What attracted you most in Fr. Marian?
I cannot say I realized all this the first time I met him, but the seed of an unforgettable relationship was started. Our friendship lasted until his passing twenty years later.
During my first visit to Puri, I met with him several times and just before I left to return to Europe, he gave me pictures of seven children at the school. He said, “These are not just poor children that cannot pay to go to school, they are sons and daughters of lepers. Even if they could pay to go to school, they would never be accepted among other students. Do you see the difference?”
I was very much touched, because with a few simple words he expressed perfectly the tragedy of the lepers: even if they were capable, they were not allowed to go to school or live a normal life. They are healthy children, but still are “untouchable” and are rejected. The lepers remain prisoners and their children are prisoners just as was Father Marian and his friends in Dachau.
When I went back to Italy I had no idea on how to collect the sponsorships for those children. So I forgot them. While talking with some friends about my journey in India I was asked to show them those pictures. I never thought it could happen, but in a short time I found–or they found me–seven sponsors who started to help the children.
8. Has knowing Fr. Marian helped you in any way to change and transform your personal life?
As I said, I had no plan to start an organization for helping the children of Puri, but everything simply happened before I could really realize how it was happening.
On a second visit to Puri the following year, other friends joined me on that journey. So many other friends came in contact with the Lepers’ Colony, and I would say, all of us where transformed by knowing the Man of God.
I was a musician, but after my journey to India, I simply couldn’t sing and play any music but devotional and spiritual music. That was a big change in my life and it was not easy in the beginning because few could understand what was going on with me. I lost many so-called friends but many new spiritual friends were attracted by my new choice.
A friend, who was working for the Italian TV, made a nice video with many pictures of the children. So before any concert of devotional music I would show the photos and talk about these children in Puri. Combining the music and the images was inspiring and, all at once, many people expressed the desire to help me to help the Beatrix School of Father Marian.
After some time, another friend offered to start a non-profit organization so that everything could become more “official”. Slowly the number of sponsored children grew from seven to more than 1,200 currently. For me, it’s a miracle, because I cannot really say that I was doing anything special to increase the number of sponsorships.
I was singing for God and at the same time I was sharing information about the lives of those children with others. Praising and serving, that is my goal. Later many said I have the best kind of life imaginable and I agree. I feel it is really true, for me.
9. What do you think are the contributions of Fr. Marian for the religious harmony in Puri?
10. How was Fr. Marian able to build positive relationships with people of other faiths?
For many years I have travelled through India many, many times, because I really feel at home there. Before going to India I did not have a religious attitude. But as I travelled my faith grew and expanded, giving a completely different shape to my whole life. Even though I was baptized, I consciously became Christian only after visiting India. And surely Father Marian was part of this inner process.
I grew up in a family where my mother was Catholic and my father Lutheran. We used to go to both churches, so from my childhood it was very easy for me to not see real differences among the different beliefs. The same happened when I was travelling in India. There, I was touched by seeing so many different ways of expressing faith in God, that I thought: God must be really infinite if He can express Himself in so many and different ways.
The capacity to relate with to many different persons and beliefs was something I also loved in Father Marian. He saw God in every person he met, whether it was a Brahmin, a Krishna devotee, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or the least untouchable leper. His attitude was a wonderful example for my personal inner growth. All religions speak of the unity of all faiths, but Father Marion made it come alive and vibrant through his natural way of being.
For me, he was like a mirror where I could see the teachings become real. He expressed the message of how we become children of God or as the teaching of Jesus says: Be perfect as your Father in Heaven. To me, Father Marion was truly a living Gospel.
11. Have the services of Fr. Marian touched you in your approach to your/our fellow human beings and in our responsibility towards others, especially for those who are less privileged?
I visited Father Marion in January 2006 and it was our last meeting. He suggested, even insisted, that I should go and visit the famous Shrine of the Black Madonna in Poland, Czestochowa. He wanted me to meet his brother and for us to make the pilgrimage together. He made some phone calls and he organized all details.
I was surprised, but I was happy to go, because I had never visited Poland before. So at the end of April I drove and reached Czestochowa on April 29th in the evening. Father Marian had perfectly organized all the details of the journey for his brother to travel with a priest, Brother Peter, who drove him to the appointment. We met in front of the church which was quite impressive. We all were tired, so we decided to go and rest and to meet next morning for the Mass in the shrine.
The next morning was Sunday, April 30th. We visited the Sanctuary and attended the Mass. When we came out, we drank a coffee together and then Brother Peter received a phone call.
His expression changed and became very sad. We couldn’t understand, but after some minutes he told us that Father Marian had just left the body in Puri. We were literally shocked.
A sudden deep silence embraced us with sorrow and sadness. Immediately I had the feeling that Father Marian knew long before that his passing would happen in such circumstances. Everything became clear to me––I realized that he left the body at the same time we were attending the Mass in his beloved Shrine. Definitely he was there with us. And what happened later revealed to me that it was really true.
After a long silence, with wet eyes, we decided to go back and enter the Shrine again. It was nearly midday. Standing in front of the holy image of the Black Madonna, all the bells suddenly started to ring, the drums and the voices of the trumpets all played together. It was like a roar, a thunder. I broke into tears and in my heart I could feel Father Marian entering into Heaven meeting our Lady and all the Saints. That was his welcome. It is difficult to express what really was happening, but we all realized that the Man of God was entering into the Reign of the Divine.
Many years have gone by, but the presence of Father Marian will always be with us, still giving inspiration to my life and to that of many others. I know my gratitude for knowing him will never be enough. Thank you, Lord.