A piece of sunshine

Smile, Tonj

Smile, Tonj


The movie "Don't Cry, Tonj II" has been released in memory of the 10th anniversary of death of Salesian Fr. Lee Tae-seok, who passed away due to colorectal cancer at the age of 47 on Jan. 14, 2010.


He was born the ninth of 10 children in 1962 in Busan. Because his father died in 1970, his mother had to earn money by sewing at Jagalchi Market to raise her children.


Watching a film about the life of Fr. Damien De Veuster (1840-1889, now a saint), a Belgium missionary of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who lived with patients with leprosy (Hansen's disease) on the island of Molokai in Hawaii, Lee made up his mind to live like Fr. Damien. Naturally, he was active as a catechist, server, choir member, etc. in the church.


Thanks to his inherited musical talent, Lee studied by himself not only the organ but the cello, saxophone and clarinet. He even enjoyed composing music.


He graduated from Inje University in 1987 with a medical degree and served as a doctor in the military. After military service, he entered the Salesians of Don Bosco in 1991 with his concerns about youth education. In 1992, he studied theology at Gwangju Catholic University and then went to the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome in 1997.


During vacation in 1999, he went to Kenya and met an Indian Salesian missionary living in Tonj. This visit was so impressive that he decided to dedicate himself to helping the poor and the children in Tonj, a small county located in South Sudan.


Then, he professed his perpetual profession in 2000 and he was ordained in 2001 by Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan. He left for Africa and observed the tragic situations of the village immersed in extreme poverty, hunger, disease, anger, and hatred due to civil wars.


Promoting volunteering and relief work, he first built the Don Bosco Hospital with 12 rooms and a clinic to take care of about 300 patients a day. Furthermore, he went around 80 neighboring villages offering treatment and vaccinations.


He also built an elementary-middle-high school with 12 courses and a dormitory. He taught mathematics and music through the nation's first brass band with 35 members.


Living as a priest, missionary, doctor, architect, teacher, conductor, father and mentor, he has become a symbolic legend of missionaries in Africa. He did his best to share hope, love, and happiness with the Dinka tribe who called him "Zzoly" meaning "John Lee."


Dedicating his whole life to the poor and children in Tonj, he is now referred to as "Schweitzer of South Sudan" and the "Saint of Tonj."


When he died, the locals cried even though they were not supposed to cry, for they are a symbol of toughness and valor. For them, shedding tears is the greatest shame.


Like Fr. Damien who made a reservoir and coffins and helped the community to build houses, schools, roads, hospitals, and churches, Fr. John Lee followed his dreams and died early. Their lofty and noble spirits will live long against the flow of the times. "Everything is good!" was his last testimony. Happy and blessed are those who do good for others!

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