The nomination didn´t surprise his admirers, of course. The proposal, announced in Warsaw´s Palace of Congresses on Jan. 30 and presented by a lay group, was supported by many politicians, both in India as well as in Europe, and by scientists and learned men, including two Polish Nobel laureates, Czeslaw Milosz and Wieslawa Szymborska.
In honoring Father Zelazek, a Divine Word missionary, the promoters said they wanted to recognize the work of all missionaries who both work to eradicate leprosy and to promote dialogue between religions and cultures.
Marian Zelazek was born Jan. 30, 1918. He was in the seminary shortly before the outbreak of World War II.
Zelazek spent five years in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. The experience, he said, made him more aware of his faith, and of the dignity of every human being.
He completed his education in Rome after the war. Ordained a priest in 1948, he left for India as a missionary.
For the first 25 years there, he was dedicated to the education of the Adivasi natives. Since 1975, he has worked in the city of Puri in Orissa, a Hindu sacred place. On the outskirts of Puri, Father Zelazek organized a leper colony, his life´s work.
The colony grew steadily, and now has 600 permanent residents. The colony offers lepers a home, food and clothes, and welcomes patients´ families.
Children receive special care. There is a school for lepers´ children next to the colony. Among the teachers there are former lepers. The school has its own dormitories and playing fields, because Father Zelazek believes that the children should not live with the sick and feel inferior to other children.
Father Zelazek appeals to the world for the long-distance adoption of these children, in order to fund their education.
The colony has its own hospital and dental clinic, as well as a textile factory, tailor´s shop and clothes store. It maintains its own kitchen, garden and chicken farm, which produce enough to feed the members of the colony.
The Polish missionary´s work is not restricted to the colony. He organized the residents of a nearby village to build a dam to protect their homes and fields from flooding.
Though previously accused of "proselytism" by fundamentalists, he has built a bookstore and a center for interreligious dialogue next to his church.