Comboni Brother Joshua dei Cas: The Grace of Leprosy

“I think I am the only one in the whole Institute who does not have to think of the work to be done tomorrow! My days are spent in the company of my African brothers; I talk to them of the Goodness of God. The Ndogo language is a bit hard for me, but I have no problem communicating in Jur. What makes me extremely happy is the presence of the Eucharist. Every day a priest comes from Wau to celebrate the Mass. What can I desire more? Who can claim to be happier than I?”

It was Brother Joshua Dei Cas who wrote these notes to his superior. They were written from his simple dwelling in Khor-Melang, the leprosarium opened by the colonial government, merely a five- kilometre bicycle ride from Wau. Brother Dei Cas spent the last years of his life there after he had contracted leprosy.

Born in the high valley of Valtellina, in a small village called Piatta, Northern Italy, in 1880, he decided to enter the Institute founded by Comboni after a long struggle with his family who did not want to part with him. His mother’s harsh words haunted him for a long time. In spite of this, he decided to give his life to evangelization in Africa.

After the novitiate, he was not admitted to the vows. He was accepted as a “lay associate and with this qualification, he could leave for Africa. It was only after thirteen years of mission work that he would see his dream come true. Readmitted to the novitiate, Joshua Dei Cas took the vows as a brother in 1920. He would soon go back to his beloved mission among the Shilluk.

Sent to Detwok, he was among the founding group. As he had done in his previous missionary experience, he set to work increasing his skills including gardening, building and hunting to meet the day-to-day needs of the community. The harsh climate of Detwok took its toll on Brother Joshua, who was transferred back to Lull, where he could regain his strength. It was during that period that Brother Dei Cas came to know of his illness. He returned to Detwok but could not stay long. The symptoms of leprosy were apparent and the tough conditions of the mission station were not ideal for him, hence his transfer first to Khartoum and then to Cairo.

It was not an easy matter to organise a trip to Italy and Brother Joshua was insisting he remained in Africa, and so it was decided he be interned in the leprosy colony at Khor-Melang. This was not a hospital in the modern sense of the term; it was a widely scattered village with less than a hundred huts, each far from the others where the sick could live in complete privacy. The only point of reference, and meeting point for the community, was the dispensary where the patients would go for periodic visits.

Brother Joshua arrived on the evening of 10th October 1928. His four years of suffering had begun. He would die on the 4th of December, 1932.

A confrere described Brother Dei Cas in this way: “He walked with a sort of swagger and was rather unrefined in his behaviour, with his mouth usually half-open. With his unfortunate appearance, he looked something like a villain. In reality, he was deeply humble and always sought the lowest place for himself.” Since his first experience of the novitiate, young Joshua had to come to terms with disappointment and suffering. When he was told that he could not wear the religious habit, as his companions did, he accepted the humiliation and hoped to be accepted “as he was.”

It was not a matter of pretending to be humble; Brother Dei Cas really saw himself as not fitted for the religious life or evangelization. Many of his companions, and especially the African people he was serving spoke highly of him. The numerous letters he wrote to his family and superiors also show a good sense of humour and deep wisdom in discerning people and events. He would swiftly come up with solutions to the problems affecting the life of the people.

In particular, the years spent in the leprosarium are a sign of his profound love for the people he was called to serve. The little chapel built for him was soon to become the centre of evangelization of the entire colony. Morning Mass was first celebrated only for him. Little by little it became one of the pivotal points in the life of the colony.

The very illness that would take him to the grave was, most probably, acquired because of his sense of service to the least in society. While in Tonga, he came to know of a rich man who had been abandoned by all his family once he became a leper. Brother Joshua was often seen chatting with him and treating him. Most probably, it was during this period that he contracted the contagious disease.

Those missionaries who went to visit him usually reported that he was truly happy in the leprosarium and that his ministry among the other lepers was moving.

In the last days of November 1932, Brother Dei Cas heard of a young missionary who had been admitted to the hospital in Wau suffering from blackwater fever, a complication of malaria. Joshua went to his chapel and asked God to take his life instead. A few hours later he suffered an attack of malaria and the doctor ordered him to be taken to the hospital in Wau. To the Father superior who came to assist him, Brother Dei Cas confessed he had offered his life in exchange of that of Brother Corneo. “I have always been a bungler,” he claimed, “and now I am no better than an old wheelbarrow. I am just a burden on the community. It is better if I go.”

Brother Dei Cas died a few hours later, while Brother Corneo made a full recovery. The funeral was followed by many of the faithful and non-Christians. His tomb soon became a place where many of his people would come to pray. This is a testimony of the impact he had on the lepers. In his own way, he took on himself the task to become all things for the least, having experienced rejection and scorn for himself first.

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