With her stubby fingers tapping rapidly on an old, yellowing photograph, Jean Hsu smiled and occasionally let out a hearty laugh as she looked at the picture of her with a white-bearded Catholic priest sitting under a tree at school.
“She is trying to tell you that Father Yeh is her friend, a very good friend who loved her very much,” said Jean's mom, who looked at the photograph with a trace of melancholy as she rubbed the back of her daughter, who suffers from severe retardation.
The scene in that picture can never be repeated again because Father Yeh, or Istvan Jaschko, passed away quietly in his sleep last Tuesday.
Jaschko, 97, was a Hungarian Catholic priest who devoted 53 years of his life in serving the poor and the marginalized in Taiwan. Through his ministry, Jaschko, often dubbed the Albert Schweitzer of Taiwan, established several clinics, hospitals and schools for the handicapped throughout the country.
True to his Chinese name, Yeh You-ken (葉由根), literally “leaf growing from the root,” was a much respected local hero who took Taiwan to his heart the minute he set foot on the island in 1955.
Not only did he dedicate more than five decades of his life to Taiwan, his body — per his request — was donated to the Fu Jen Catholic University for medical research.
Born to a religious family of nine children in 1911 in a small town called Kosice in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jaschko joined the Catholic Society of Jesus at the age of 26 and began his lifelong mission to spread the love of God.
In 1936, the young Jaschko was sent to China with the largest group of Hungarian missionaries — six Jesuits and five sisters from Kalocsa. He studied Chinese for two years before he was ordained a priest in Shanghai in 1941.
For three years, he worked as a teacher of Latin and theology at the seminary in Daming. One of his students was Paul Shan (單國璽), who became the first archbishop from Taiwan to be ordained a cardinal in 1988.
Because of the raging war between China and Japan, Jaschko witnessed the flood of refugees and victims dying because of lack of medical care in war-torn China. Finally, in 1949, with the help of the Red Cross, Jaschko established the first hospital in Hebei Province with 100 hospital beds. Given the severe lack of qualified medical workers, he hired six young men to help him with his work. All six later became licensed doctors in China.
The Chinese Communist regime tried to drive away all foreign missionaries from the land. Although most of his friends and colleagues left, Jaschko was determined to stay on to look after his flock and the hospital.
Jaschko eventually fell into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), however, when his deputy hospital chief accused him of beating a Chinese child. The allegation earned him three years of hard labor in jail. The deputy chief later confessed that he had fabricated the story against Jaschko because his father had been arrested by the CCP.
“I did not feel sad,” Jaschko said in describing his imprisonment, “because God lives in my heart.”
Jaschko was expelled by the CCP in 1955 — the same year he came to Taiwan via Hong Kong.
Continuing with his passion for medicine and serving the underprivileged, Jaschko set up the Catholic Hospital for the Poor in the farming county of Chiayi, where he hired a Taiwanese girl who had barely finished elementary school to act as his translator. For half a century, the little girl, Wu Fu-mei (吳富美), kept close contact with the father.
Jaschko was inspired to start a school for disabled children when he saw many of them left in poor care as their parents worked in the fields. He set up his first classroom in a dilapidated Buddhist temple, Wu recalled.
In 1974, Jaschko was transferred to Hsinchu County, where he wasted no time in helping disabled children. One year later, the St Joseph Special Education Center had its grand opening. The center currently houses more than 160 children and is often credited as the birthplace of special education in Taiwan.
In 1983, at the age of 72, the silver-haired priest who then walked with the aid of a cane, decided to open Hua Kuang Cognitive Development Center. Established in the town of Guanhsi (關西) in Hsinchu, Hua Kuang, which is now headed by Wu, is what Jean and more than 200 residents call their home away from home.
One staffer, Peng Hsiu-yue (彭秀月), said the priest was a serious man, but whenever he was around children, he was all smiles.
“He didn't even mind when the students played with his beard,” Peng said.
“He saw himself as Taiwanese a long time ago,” Wu said, recalling that Jaschko had his alien permanent resident certificate, which he received in 2002, proudly hung up on his humble bedroom wall.
“The minute he found out that he was staying at a more expensive hospital room, he asked to be discharged because he wanted to be back at the center to be with his children, the residents,” said Jean's father, Hsu Yu-yuan (許玉源), who is also the president of the Parent Teacher Association, describing Jaschko as a “truly great man.”
On the morning of his passing, more than 250 people came to pay their final tribute. His body was immediately brought to the medical center in Taipei at noon.
“He has done an excellent job and his ministry has touched the lives of many people and brought the love of God to many people. We mourn for his passing and pray that God will reward him for what he has done,” said Monsignor Paul Fitzgerald, charge d'affaires of the Holy See to Taiwan.
A formal memorial service for Jaschko will be held next Tuesday at the chapel of the Hua Kuang center in honor of his life and legacy.
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