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Spreading the gospel of love

One of Korea’s first Catholic missionaries dedicates life to people of Busan and peaceful reunification

BUSAN ― Hardship was something the young German knew well.

Torn from his home near Munich and drafted into the German Army in World War II, he was launched into a violent life of combat.

He was then captured and held as a prisoner of war in Yugoslavia for four years, the first two of which he describes as incredibly tough.

So when he arrived in Korea in 1958 following an arduous seven-week voyage, the post-Korean War conditions he found in the poverty-stricken village of Jeok Ki, Busan, did not come as a shock.

“I had been suffering a lot, so I was prepared,” Monsignor Ha Anton Trauner told The Korea Herald at his parish atop a picturesque hill in Busan.

“I remember when I first came to Busan, many people living on the streets … and there was no time to rest, everyone was busy trying to earn money.”
Monsignor Ha Anton Trauner at his parish in Busan. (Hannah Stuart-Leach/The Korea Herald)
Monsignor Ha Anton Trauner at his parish in Busan. (Hannah Stuart-Leach/The Korea Herald)

Aged 36, and one of the first foreign Catholic missionaries to arrive here after the Korean War, Trauner reversed the name of the village so it read “Ki Jeok,” or miracle in English.

So taken with the village and its people, he knew right then that he would spend his life there.

“The people asked me, ‘How long will you stay?’ and I said, ‘I will stay till my death,’ and they were very happy,’” he said with a smile.

And he did not go back on his word, only leaving in the more than 50 years since he arrived for trips home and missionary work. Earlier this year, he was awarded Honorary Citizenship of Busan, an accolade he beamed at the mention of.

After Trauner had answered his calling to move here, the Bishop of Busan was keen for him to have his own parish as soon as possible. Although eager to get started, he had other matters to attend to first.

For starters, he had to prove wrong the chairman missionary who had told him upon his arrival, “You can never learn Korean,” believing it too hard for a foreigner.

But a cause closer to the priest’s heart was the pursuit of peace. Having seen so much conflict during his life, and identifying with the plight of Koreans due to the divided state of East and West Germany in his homeland, Trauner was keen to spread his message, and Catholicism, throughout the peninsula.

“I said, I have to make a movement for peace,” he explained excitedly.

He traveled around the country, mass by mass, doing sermons (by now in Korean) to preach peace and pray for unification.

A year later, he returned to Busan, determined to make a difference. He established Dong Hang Catholic Mission in the village he had first arrived in.

Although he has traveled extensively, he has most love for the city of Busan ― enough to devote more than half his life to.

“The Busan people are very kind because they come from many parts, from Japan, from other parts of Korea … because the North Korean army conquered the whole of Korea until Busan,” he explained, adding that he has always felt welcome there and found it easy to fit in.

Always on the lookout for ways to help others, he came across a lone girl living in an orphanage of 100 boys, and taking pity invited her to come and live at his parish. Next, a blind boy caught his attention and he moved him in, too. Within a year, Trauner and his staff were taking care of seven orphans, and his “House of Love” developed into a community welfare center on the grounds of his church. His mother sold all her belongings to fund the project.

To this day, one of them, nicknamed “Ms. Happy” still lives and works with him and others remain in contact. He is pleased that having remained in the same place all this time, he has been able to watch them grow.

Realizing a need for quality education in the area, he set about creating the German Korean School in 1976 with a fellow countryman. There were just 60 students when it opened, but it soon outgrew itself and now exists as a school for 800 in Haeundae.

His next project, in 1977, was to build a birthing center for women of low income. In part a response to government measures to deter new births, this was the only safe facility many women had until reliable and affordable hospitals became available. Until 1992, the center helped deliver 20,000 babies.

But of all the good work Trauner has done, his lifelong quest remains the reunification of Korea ― something he believes is necessary to alleviate the massive humanitarian crisis there.

“We are waiting and we are hoping and we are praying … they (Koreans) must be unified.

“The people in North Korea suffer so much, not like men, like beasts,” he explained.

Trauner is concerned that as South Korea becomes wealthier, support for reunification wanes, especially among the younger generation who he feels are more interested in seeing the world than what is happening at home.

“They are the same people, the same nation and it’s our neighbors, our friends,” he pleaded.

In support of his beliefs, he organized the first large-scale reunification meeting in 1974 at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju. Around 10,000 people turned up to pray for the people of North Korea. The event is now held yearly and attracts around 4,000 attendees each time.

Trauner was also the first to introduce the Blue Army, an American export which has its core in the defeat of communism, the Red Army, through Christianity. It was well-received among Korea’s burgeoning Christian community and the “Korea Fatima” is now relatively widespread. Activities of the NGO include prayer meetings and missionary work.

Although he has done a great deal to improve conditions for the people of his village, it remains noticeably poor, with some residents still living in makeshift shacks.

But at 89, Trauner still welcomes all who come to him, telling them regardless of what troubles them, “I will love you.”

The church has become something of a haven for those who don’t quite fit in. This includes the poor, North Korean defectors, foreigners and anyone else who seeks solace. But it is also a refuge for people around the country who seek impassioned, “fervent” worship, for which his church is renowned.

Learning from the experiences he has had talking with North Korean defectors and those who are otherwise disadvantaged, he feels strongly that “we must try to integrate the communities of the parish.”

For a man who empathized with a woman throwing stones off his roof and berating the church, and who has devoted most of his life to helping others, it is fitting that he feels his greatest achievement is “spreading the gospel of love.”

Although his health is ailing, Trauner remains upbeat, cheerful and motivated to do yet more. He is due to fly to Germany for medical treatment for several weeks, but is still busy with sermons and the Catholic magazine he started 30 years ago, Maria.

He is helped in his work by a team of 25 sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary mission which he established 25 years ago on the grounds of his parish.

Having now lived in Korea longer than he did in Germany, he embraces the country, and his many friends here, harboring no regrets about never returning to Europe.

Many things have changed since he first arrived.

“There are so many (new) big buildings and cities, but (Korean’s) changed also in their hearts. They are no longer such a simple people … but they are very good. I like them. There are many good people … they have much emotion.”

Although it was a calling from God to come here, it seems it was the open and passionate nature of the Korean people who made this country his home.

“Western countries like Germany can learn much from Korea. The Koreans have open hearts and they are very kind. They have a strong feeling that ‘we are one nation,’ it is always ‘we,’” he said.

“Korea has a big future because the people are working hard, the people have a strong faith and the people will face all odds.”

Monsignor Ha Anton Trauner

• 1958 — Arrived in Korea as Catholic Priest, traveled the country preaching
• 1959 — Started Dong Hang Catholic Mission in Jeok Ki village, Busan
• 1962 — Set up orphanage which became a community facility known as
“The House of Love”
• 1965 — Established Korean-German school in the village
• 1974 — Organized first Imjingak Prayer Meeting at the Imjingak Pavilion, Paju
• 1981 — First published Catholic magazine “Maria”
• 1981 — Introduced Blue Army to Korea, “Korea Fatima” developed
• 1986 — Established Immaculate Heart of Mary monastery of sisters
• 2011 — Awarded Honorary Citizenship of Busan

By Hannah Stuart-Leach (
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