Former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik has agreed to chair a government-civilian committee aimed at nominating two Austrian nurses who spent 40 years as voluntary nurses for South Korean leprosy patients on a remote island for the Nobel Peace Prize, a Catholic priest said Thursday.
Rev. Franciscus Kim Yeon-jun, who has been working to promote the awareness of the selfless service of the two nurses, Marianne Stoeger, 82, and Margareta Pissar, 81, told reporters that the former prime minister "gladly accepted" an offer for him to chair the envisioned committee.
The government of South Jeolla Province and the archdiocese in the southwestern city of Gwangju have been working together to form the committee expected to comprise about 50 people. The two sides have sought to invite the former prime minister to serve its chairman and First Lady Kim Jung-sook as honorary chairperson.
The campaign to nominate the two nurses for the Nobel honor was conceived when current Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon was governor of South Jeolla Province. Lee proposed the campaign after watching a documentary film about the two produced by Rev. Kim.
After graduating from nursing college in Austria, Stoeger and Pissar moved to South Korea's southern island of Sorok in 1962 and 1966, separately, after learning that the island was in need of nurses. It had been known and shunned for more than 100 years as a leprosy colony.
The two, better known here as Sisters Marianne and Margareta even though they were not ordained, spent the next 40 years working at the National Sorok Island Hospital as volunteer nurses without pay before they returned to their home country in 2005.
Rev. Kim, who worked with them on Sorok for about a year before they left Korea, said he was so moved and shocked by their service that he decided to produce the documentary to let the world know of such unprecedented acts.
"When they came, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Policies for leprosy patients were even poorer," Kim said. "When they came to Sorok, there were few Korean doctors and nurses and even if there were, they didn't even try to touch patients. But Marianne and Margareta touched affected parts of patients and wiped out pus."
Kim said it must be unprecedented for nurses to volunteer without pay for 40 years.
He said that the committee is expected to be launched next month.
Kim also proposed offering them official South Korean citizenship in recognition of their service so that they can keep dual citizenship. In 2006, the government offered them honorary citizenship.
In June, officials of the South Jeolla provincial government visited the two nurses in Austria. Kim said that Marianne has cancer and Margareta light dementia.
"The two nurses spent more than 40 years on Sorok. They are South Korean people. When they were younger, they said they would bury their bones on Sorok," Kim said. "But as they became old, they left saying they don't want to be a burden. We feel ashamed and guilty that we failed to make sure that they live comfortable lives." (Yonhap)