Dr. Ruth Stark

The Four M’s of Father Gérard

 

The year 1099, Jerusalem

The First Crusade

Blessed Gérard         A gentle looking monk enters the ward. Two novices trail behind. Emblazoned on the front of their long black robes is a huge white Maltese cross.

         The room is crammed with the sick and injured. Some are crusaders, wounded in the bloody battles for control of Jerusalem. Many are pilgrims in a state of near collapse, hungry and exhausted, ill from their arduous journey to the Holy Land. Others are simply poor and have nowhere else to go.

         The monk is Brother Gérard, a member of the Benedictine order. He has reorganized this monastery guesthouse into a hospital and founded a nursing brotherhood, which became only fourteen years later the Order of St John, to care for the “Poor of Christ”, “our Lords, the Sick”.

          Brother Gérard walks from bed to bed giving comfort and care to the ill and injured—washing and feeding the helpless, dressing their wounds. As he lifts a spoon to the mouth of one of the dying men, he turns to the two black-robed novices behind him. “It’s a favor and an honor to care for this suffering man. This man represents Christ. The way we come close to God is to serve ‘the holy poor.’”

 

The year 2012, Mandini, Zululand, South Africa

The HIV Epidemic

         Now, 900 years later, I happen upon him. In South Africa.  In an HIV care center hidden away in the mountains of Zululand, in a small rural community ravenged by poverty and AIDS.

         We fly from Johannesburg to the coastal city of Durban and then drive through the mountains, past clusters of Zulu homesteads, until we reach Mandeni, a nondescript South African town. The center we have come to visit is located next to the Catholic Church {easy to find in this small town}, and minutes later we arrive. But the large two story building would have been hard to miss in any case. Painted on the outer wall is a large black shield that looks like the one Zulu warriors take into battle, except that the Zulu shield on the wall has another shield superimposed in the middle—a bright red western-shaped shield with a white eight-pointed Maltese cross in the center, the kind of shield the crusader knights carried into their battles. Above and below the shield are written the words, Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard. And under the shield directly over the entrance in huge bold black letters, the words: BLESSED GÉRARD’S CARE CENTRE.

       I enter the lobby and look up with a start. Blessed GérardThere he is, Blessed Gérard, at the bedside of a patient whose arms reach out to him in desperation. The tall monk in his long black habit with the big white Maltese cross on the front picks up a bowl and spoon and feeds the starving man, while the two black-robed novices behind him look on.

         The last person I expected to encounter in 21st century Africa is this medieval monk.

         As I stand before the life-sized figures on this floor-to-ceiling mural, I hear the voice of another Gérard—a Benedictine monk who carries on the spirit and the work of his namesake in this unlikely corner of the earth, Father Gérard Lagleder.

Father Gérard         “Welcome!  You are so very welcome! Come, let me show you around.”

         Father is a hefty German man in his fifties with thinning hair, a short grey beard, and black glasses. I have seen him many times at meetings in standard priest issue dress, black shirt and clerical collar. But today he dons a white pilot shirt with bright red epaulettes on the shoulders, distinguishing devices like the ones worn by pilots, military officers and nurses in some countries (including South Africa) to indicate qualifications and rank. On each epaulette is a white Maltese cross. On the breast pocket of the shirt is the same shield I saw on the entrance to the building, the badge designed as the insignia of the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard in South Africa.

         “Come up to my office for a cup of tea. Afterwards I’ll show you around the hospice and children’s home.”

         We follow Father down the hall past wooden Zulu carvings representing the fourteen Stations of the Cross and up the stairs to his office. On the narrow stairway, framed black and white antique etchings of the monk who started this “everlasting brotherhood” line the walls—the monk the Vatican has set on the path to sainthood and now refers to as Blessed Gérard.

         I take a seat at Father Gérard’s massive wood desk. Everywhere I look—white Maltese crosses on bright red background—on candles, mugs, and medallions in glass fronted display cabinets. Even a blond Barbie doll in a black cape with its red shield and cross mounted atop a big white horse. On Father’s desk a notepad with a Maltese cross printed on the red cover and a small red flag with the same white symbol.

        I just don’t get how this all comes together: the Brotherhood of St John; the Maltese crosses; the Benedictine monk—Blessed Gérard; and the AIDS care center here in South Africa.  Father explains.

         Blessed Gérard was a Benedictine monk who ministered in a monastery guest house near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem during the First Crusade. Many who sought refuge at the monastery were pilgrims and crusader knights who were either ill or injured. To provide for their care, in 1099 Gérard transformed the guesthouse into a hospital, the Hospital of St John and founded the Brotherhood of St John, the oldest existing medical religious order in the Catholic Church, to run the hospital. In addition to nursing the sick, the dedicated members of this order housed abandoned children, fed the poor and cared for discharged prisoners.

                Throughout the Crusades, as the battles raged over control of Jerusalem, Brother Gérard built additional hospitals along the routes frequented by pilgrims. Knights, later known sometimes referred to as the Knights Hospitaller, defended these charitable institutions from attack, and the Order of St John developed into a military as well as a medical order.

       Over the years, European wars and shifting political alliances forced the Order of St John of Jerusalem to relocate its headquarters from one country to another, including to the island country of Malta, where the Order came to be popularly known as the Order of Malta.

         Eventually the need to defend itself diminished and the Order lost its military character entirely. Today, while it retains a historic base in Malta, the headquarters are in Rome and there are many categories of members. There are priests who serve as chaplains but most members are lay people, some of whom make “promises,” to serve, rather than take the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Some lay members are even designated as knights. And although its official name remains the “Sovereign Military Order of Malta", the focus now is exclusively on the charitable works for which it was founded. Curiously though, the Order’s “sovereign” status continues. To this day, the Order of Malta maintains diplomatic relations with 104 countries and has observer status at the United Nations.  

         We finish our tea and Father tours me through the care center he founded under the banner of the Order of Malta and introduces me to the staff. Every single person I meet dons the same uniform. Whether cleaners or nurses, doctors or cooks, every person in the building dresses exactly like Father—white shirt with the black shield badge on their breast pocket and white Maltese cross on red epaulettes on their shoulders. 

         Near the entrance a young Zulu medical doctor provides life-saving antiretroviral drug treatment to people living with HIV. For Dr Nzimande, his clinical work is more than a job; it is a ministry, and he has joined the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard as a dedicated lay member, in the centuries-old tradition of the Order of Malta. This morning we find him giving a talk to a room of patients he is preparing to put on treatment, explaining the importance of taking their medication every day.   Since the doctor is busy we move on to the hospice, the largest inpatient hospice facility in South Africa, a place where those beyond treatment spend their last days. Each ward is identified by the name of a saint of the Order of Malta on the door. We open the door to the St Flora’s ward. As a nurse, I immediately note how clean the room is, how comfortable the atmosphere is, how delighted the patients are to see Father. He goes to each bed, leans down close to give words of comforts, and gently holds their bony hands. This is not the Father Gérard I see at meetings in the city—intense, driven, making his case for additional funds; this is Father Gérard the priest.

         We leave the hospice and head towards the section of the building that houses over forty children with no where else to go— children “left over” when their parent dies in the hospice, those who have been tormented and abused, orphans with no relative who can give them a home, those who are disabled and in need of constant care, children unable to be placed in foster homes. Father sees himself as just that to the little ones, their father. He spends time with them and closely follows their development. He is now expanding the home so he can care for more children and renovating to make it “more homey” and to provide more place for play. Later in the morning when we pass by the kitchen, Father stops to introduce me to a developmentally challenged young woman helping with preparations for lunch. She grew up in the children’s home and is now one of the staff. In her white shirt and red epaulettes, she is protected and secure in the only home she has ever known, a home she will never have to leave.

         The last stop on our walkabout is the Catholic chapel, a large room dominated by a wall-sized outline of the Maltese cross. Hanging life-sized on the cross, carved in wood is the Zulu Christ. This is the place Father offers mass for the staff and ambulatory patients and for the wider community of Mandeni. It is also the place he presides over the ceremonies where those associated with the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard put on their long black capes, badges, and Brotherhood medals and perform the rituals that characterize the Order.

         We return upstairs, to the section of the center where he Father lives and works.

         “I’m impressed with the center with all you accomplish here. But I’m also curious. How did a man from Germany connect with the centuries-old Order of Malta and end up in Africa as the founder of an AIDS Care Center?  Would you be willing to tell me about your personal journey?”

         Father agrees and tells me his story.

I always say I’ve got four vocations—I call them the four M’s.

My first vocation was to be a member of the German relief organization of the Order of Malta.”

         In Europe the Order of Malta trains nurses and nursing assistants as well as emergency medical technicians and offers courses in first aid and home nursing. The Protestant offshoot of these activities is represented by the Johanniter Order and the Anglican orientated Order of St John and its Ambulance Services operate in many Commonwealth Countries.

         A friend of his family was a first aid trainer for the Order of Malta. She talked about it and he convinced her to take him along to some basic classes. “It was highly interesting to me and caused a thirst to learn more.”

         “What sparked your interested in these nursing courses in the first place?”

         “My mother was always a sick person. I never experienced my mother as happy and healthy—happy but not healthy—so nursing was a part of our day to day life. We did that for our mother…She died of cancer.”

         The young adolescent, who would later take the religious name of Gérard, could only take the more advanced nursing courses if he became a member of Malteser Hilfsdienst the relief organization of the Order of Malta in Germany. Today, as in the distant past, there are many categories of membership, from professed religious to lay volunteers, even modern day knights. At age fourteen, however, Gérard was too young to qualify for any class of membership. But he didn’t give up—shades of the persistence that would later characterize him:

          “I begged and begged and they finally gave in.”

          Through high school he continued his classes with the Order of Malta’s relief organization and eventually qualified as a nursing instructor and placed in charge of training of 3500 nurse aids.

         Gérard wanted to be a doctor. He attended class during the day and worked night shifts in the hospital to support himself.

         During the long nights, when patients feel the most vulnerable and alone, they would tell him their life stories and many times it would be a “life confession.”

         “I thought that what those people would need was if I could tell them ‘your sins are forgiven’ but I couldn’t. I thought that maybe what people need is a doctor for their soul. This was one of the many reasons that made me think of the religious vocation.”

         He left the study of medicine to prepare for the priesthood.

Thus began the second M of Father Gérard’s vocation—Ministry as a priest.

         Then around the time of his ordination he began asking himself, ‘What does God really want of me?’”

         He meditated on Scripture where Jesus calls people to become his disciples and was especially moved by the story of the young rich man who wanted to follow Jesus until he learned that to follow Jesus totally he would first have to sell all he had and give the money to the poor.  
          “For me, that meant to become part of a religious order. Then I thought, “where do I go?’  Because I had medical and nursing experience with the Order of Malta and felt that this [the first M] was part of my vocation, I decided I should enter into a missionary order…On the day of my ordination as a priest, I entered the Order of the Missionary
Benedictines.”

It was when he joined the Benedictine religious order and took his vows as a monk, {the third M],

that Father took on a new name, the name we know him by, the name of the Benedictine monk in the mural on the wall, the name of Gérard.   

         Initially the Order planned to mission Father Gérard to the Philippines.  But then the Abbot needed someone urgently in South Africa. These were the days of apartheid and Father Gérard was concerned about what he, as a white man, could contribute in that conflicted country. 

         “My heart told me to take the challenge,” and he arrived in South Africa in 1987, a time of great social unrest, when the struggle to dismantle apartheid had escalated and threatened to tear the country apart.

         “I was absolutely surprised when I found that I was not a white man in a black community, but I was a priest looking after people in need, in spiritual need and bodily need, and I found that this is really my vocation.”

Father had found his vocation as a missionary, the 4th M,

         For the first three years Father Gérard worked in a parish “in the middle of nowhere.” He and the parish priest were the only white people in the district, and there he became fluent in the Zulu language with its complex grammatical structure. Then he was assigned to be the parish priest in Mandeni.

         “Mandeni was known as a white parish surrounded by black townships. I turned up my nose at this because I was a missionary priest sent to the Zulu people, and I didn’t think that the white people would need my kind of missionary input—how wrong I was!”

         When Father settled into Mandeni, he found that white people were the minority, that the great majority were black people living in squatter camps, now euphemistically called “informal settlements.”

        “When I went out into the community I said to myself, ‘Aha, this is why God sent me here—there is more than enough work.’” 

         He soon realized the need to expand and better organize the charitable work of the Church, but he wasn’t sure where to start. Then two things happened, two events that would bring together the four M’s of his vocation together and shape the future of his ministry.

         The first event happened in 1991 when he visited a dying lady in her shack. As Father Gérard administered the Sacrament of the anointing of the sick and gave her communion, he could tell that she in pain. He asked her about it and she told him that her back hurt so much she could hardly bear it.

         “Then I said, ‘Would you mind I have a look what’s wrong with you? I’m not only a priest, I’m a nurse.’ Then she lifted up her blouse and I saw that her back was one huge bedsore, so deep that the spinal cord was exposed. I took her to a doctor who was active in our parish, Dr Paul Thabethe, and he admitted her to hospital. She died that night.”

         “Then Dr Thabethe said to me, ‘Father, so many people in the community are dying of neglect. Can’t we do something—something like a home?  He opened an open door when he asked that question.”

       The second event that was to define his mission was a phone call about two destitute families who were about to be evicted from their hovel. The father had lost his job and there was no money for the children’s school fees, not even money for food. Father asked the parish for help. A lady, Clare Kalkwarf, responded and said she would organize the parishioners to provide relief. In two days the members of the church had provided food and clothing for the family and had paid the fees so the children could attend school. They had even found someone to hire the father.

     “Then I knew that there was someone local who has got the heart, who has the skills, who has the drive to organize. That for me was an eye opener.”

       Father Gérard saw that there was a great need to help the community and that there was a core of people in the church who were motivated to take on the task. So he sat down with Dr Thabethe and his wife, a nurse, and Clare Kalkwarf and her husband, a businessman, and suggested that they found a relief organization as an arm of the Order of Malta and in the spirit of Blessed Gérard. They agreed and began the process of drawing up the documents and securing the required permissions, including the permission of the Benedictine Order for him to embark on this path.

         “It was the Benedictines who sent me here, not the Order of Malta. And when I came to South Africa, I thought I would never again be involved with the Order of Malta in all my life.”

         On October 28 1992, The Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard was founded and on April 20 1993 it was accepted by the Sovereign Council of the Order of Malta as the relief organization of the Order of Malta in South Africa and by the Bishop of the Diocese of Eshowe as a “private association of Christ’s Faithful”.

         The four M’s of his vocation—Malta, Ministry, Monk, Missionary—had come together in ways he could never have imagined. He gives medical care to the sick through his association with the Order of Malta; he ministeres to the spiritual needs of the community as a priest; he is a monk in the Benedictine religious order; and he serves as a Missionary in Africa.

         As we talk together in this care center, surrounded by all the symbols of the oldest existing medical order in the Catholic Church—the Maltese crosses and red shields that hark back to the middle ages, Father Gérard reflects on his personal journey.

         Today, in addition to the AIDS treatment program, the inpatient hospice, and the children’s home, the Blessed Gérard’s Care Center runs other community programs. The list is long: an HIV/AIDS education program, a malnutrition clinic, a poor-sick fund, a relief fund, a pre-primary nursery school, a social club for the elderly, a first aid service, a scholarship fund, and a disaster relief project.

         “Each and every one of our projects is a direct response to an identified insufficiency of care in our community, an area of need where there is no one else involved. It is exactly these gaps that we try to bridge.” 

         Father is gratified that most of the work these days is done by local members of the Brotherhood, that today he is the only foreign passport holder on the Board. He likens the role of a missionary to the scaffolding on a building—when the building goes up, the scaffolding goes down.

         When he speaks about the local members, Father never fails to mention Clare Kalkwarf, the woman who dedicated her life to the work of the Brother from its earliest days. Murdered in 2006 when robbers broke into her small home, her life as well as her death testifies to the conflicting forces still at work in this beautiful land. Clare now lies in a grave on the grounds of the Brotherhood behind the chapel wall.

         Today Father’s main task is to raise funds and to create public awareness and interest in the center, and he spends three months every year on fundraising in Europe. He is a master at communications technology and from his desk in Mandeni sends his messages out in cyberspace to reach the global community.  In addition to his blog, information about the Blessed Gérard Care Center can be found on at least ten different sites, Facebook and Twitter.  

         “What about the future, Father?  Do you think you’ll spend the future here?

         “My idea of retirement is to be the hospice chaplain—that I go from bed to bed and hold the hand of the patient, go back to basic nursing and basic pastoral care, feed the patients, talk to them, just be there, a good grandfather to the children in the home. That would be my dream…”

         I look around the room at all those Maltese crosses and when I look back at him, I see the 900 year old Blessed Gérard.



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