Dr. Ruth Pfau was born on 9 September, 1929, in Leipzig, Germany. She had a happy home but the family had to live through the horrors of Nazi domination followed by the turmoil and destruction of the Second World War leading to the division of Germany into East and West. She chose to study medicine and pursue her studies in West Germany.
As a young medical student she was actively engaged in students’ activities and felt the attraction of a life of love in marriage. Born in a Protestant family, she began to experience the influence of Catholicism through friends and an exposure to parish life. In her search for truth she decided to become a Catholic with further desire of serving God through a religious order.
On the home front, her elder sisters were married and working. She discussed the option of religious life with her parents and despite differences of opinion, her mother concluded, “If this is her calling then she has to follow it.” This helped Ruth make her decision to join the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary in their formation house in Paris.
During the time of her formation in an international novitiate, many requests came from India requesting her services as a doctor. Ruth was ready to respond but kept waiting for a visa from India. Meanwhile, she paid a visit to Karachi where a small group of DHM had started work in the most unhygienic and neglected slum of the city called the lepers’ colony. During her first visits, she felt repulsed by the filth of the lanes and the sight of poor, deformed lepers in the darkness of despair. However, the sight of their suffering and their appeal for help was too much for her sensitivity to resist and she made her decision to stay in Karachi and cast her lot in service to this socially ostracised population.
From then onwards, she was a woman with a mission to carry forward. She sought to inform herself about the diagnosis and treatment of Hansen’s Disease, spending two months in India at the world famous Christian Medical College, Vellore, where she gained new knowledge and skills to inspire her programme of action in Pakistan. She set up a training programme for Leprosy Technicians who could man the essential services in the 160 leprosy clinics across Pakistan, that treated over 56,780 people. During the span of about 30 years, leprosy was controlled in the whole of Pakistan with an official recognition from the WHO. She was appointed Federal Advisor to the Government of Pakistan on Leprosy Control.
Ruth saw not just patients in need of a cure but persons who were socially rejected as the least and last in the outreach of the human family. She yearned to invest them with their rightful dignity as created in the image of God and to lift their families to a status of respectful social acceptance. It did not matter what religion or social background they came from.
Her personal needs were few. Her capacity to adjust to the strain of journeys through rude and rough terrain, in biting cold or burning heat, her zeal to uncover and identify the ugly face of leprosy in the caves and corners of district areas, made her an icon to her fellow-workers who were fired with her unabated energy and moved the engines of change for the whole country, even reaching out to Afghanistan and Azad Kashmir.
Ruth offered her life willingly for the happiness of the people she had chosen as her own. Faithful to the presence of the Eucharistic Lord each morning, she enjoyed the quiet of a Chapel adjacent to her residence. It was in the deep and hidden recesses of her life of union with God that she found the strength to be a light that shone in the darkness of despair, upholding the aspirations of the least, the last and the lost.
And the people of Pakistan responded. On being informed of her death on 11 August, 2017, the Prime Minister said, “Dr. Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau came to Pakistan at the dawn of a young nation, looking to make lives better for those afflicted by disease, and in so doing found herself a home. She may have been born in Germany but her heart was always in Pakistan. For the debt Pakistan owes to Dr. Pfau’s selflessness and unmatched service for eradication of leprosy, she would receive a state funeral.” Thus, was she buried with full state honours on 19 August, 2017. Ruth Pfau gave new hope to innumerable people and proved through her illustrious toil that serving humanity knows no boundaries. “We are proud of you Ruth Pfau for your exemplary services, and you will remain in our hearts as a shining symbol in times ahead.”
Note: The Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary was founded in 1790, in France by Peter Joseph de Cloriviere, a Jesuit priest, along with Marie Adelaide de Cice during the most difficult times of the French Revolution in order to serve the Holy Mother Church. True to their original charism, the DHMs are following the footsteps of St.Ignatius and their founders, while responding to the needs of the time.