On May 13, the Saint Francis Leprosy Guild celebrates the birth of their founder, Kate Marsden, born in north London on this day in 1859.
As a young woman, Marsden was inspired by stories of Father Damien Molokai, later recognised as a Saint for his work among lepers in Hawaii. Marsden became a nurse, working for a time in New Zealand and later caring for soldiers wounded in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. Serving in Bulgaria that she first encountered patients with leprosy, who convinced her of her mission to those suffering from the disease.
Hearing of a possible cure for leprosy – a herb supposedly found only in Russia – Marsden set off upon what would become an 11,000-mile journey across Russia. She aided Russian prisoners she encountered along the way, showing special concern for women, whether themselves convicts or accompanying their husbands into exile.
When she arrived in Irkutsk, she formed a committee to address the situation of lepers in Siberia. Continuing to Yakutsk, she discovered the herb she believed could be a cure but was disappointed when it proved merely to help alleviate the symptoms of the disease. In Vilyuysk, some 350 miles from Yakutsk, she discovered a colony of lepers living in appalling conditions, ostracised by their families, cast out of their communities, sent into leper colonies, or even abandoned on the Siberian tundra.
She returned to England to some acclaim and continued her efforts in support of those suffering from leprosy – now commonly referred to as Hansen’s disease, in no small part to combat the social stigma still associated with the condition. In 1895, Marsden converted to Catholicism, and became a third-order Franciscan. That same year, with the help of some influential Catholics, she founded the Saint Francis Leprosy Guild, with the then-Archbishop of Westminster, Herbert Cardinal Vaughan as its patron.
In 1897, Marsden returned to Siberia to open a hospital for the lepers she had found in Vilyuytsk; the institution later served as a psychiatric hospital and later a home for the elderly and invalid.
Despite her remarkable achievements, for which she was named one of the first female fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, accusations of financial misconduct and rumours about her personal life led to her retirement from public life. “Today it is difficult to unravel to what extent these accusations were based on jealousy, misunderstandings and most importantly, to anti-Catholic sentiment,” says the SFLG, noting that when Marsden died in 1931, she had largely faded from the public eye.
Nonetheless, “the work of the St Francis Leprosy Guild which she set up to combat leprosy has continued to this day.” In addition to supporting some 30 leprosy centres around the world, the Guild cares for those who have been marginalised because of their afflictions, and whose disabilities have robbed them of their livelihoods.
Now celebrating 125 years since its foundation, the St Francis Leprosy Guild continues to work toward the goal of a world free of Hanson’s disease. continues