Origins of St Lukes Leprosarium

The premier mission hospital in the CSI Tirunelveli Diocese is the St.Luke’s Hospital at Nazareth founded by Missionaries in 1870.

Dr. R. Vedabodakam, one of the pioneer ‘black’, missionary doctors of the deep South, served this hospital with distinction for more than 42 years.

The year was 1937, long before the discovery of anti-leprosy drugs. The public’s – why, even the medico’s concept of a leprosy hospital was an exclusive asylum located far away from the town – ‘without’ the Camp. With vision and courage Dr. Vedabodakam opened a leprosy wing in this general hospital, situated in the middle of the village.

‘How dare you allow the ‘lepers’ enter the village and that too a general hospital situated right in the heart of the town”, protested the villagers.

A man of extra-ordinary courage, both physical and spiritual, Dr. Vedabodakam stood his ground. Thus was born the leprosy clinic at St.Luke’s Hospital, Nazareth the mother of St.Luke’s Leprosarium, Peikulam in 1937.

Then came into the Indian market, DDS the first anti-leprosy drug. Dr. Vedabodakam treated his leprosy patients with optimism born of the hope of cure of this scourge for the first time in the history of mankind.

In 1954, the attendance rate plummeted.

Dr. Vedabodakam was perplexed.

“Why so many patients have dropped off” he wondered.

But he did not stop with just wondering, He cared, and took the pains to know why.

Those were days when there were no motorable roads. He walked all the way to the villages, knocked at the doors of each and every patient.

“Why didn’t you come to the clinic”, he inquired.

“Doctor Ayyaah! (Doctor-Sir) we have to trek 16 miles to reach the hospital thro’ sandy-dunes stewn with thorns”, they lamented.

“The heat in the month (May) is killing. By the time we reach the hospital, some of us who started with two good feet ended up with huge blisters in both of them..

“What more, the famine has hit us so hard, we don’t even have enough food to eat. How can we think of medical treatment?”

“Why should we allow these poor patients to trudge the long distance wearily to the hospital in the scorching summer heat exceeding 110ºF?”, Dr. Vedabodakam asked himself.

“Why not bring the hospital to the door-step of the patient?”

He carried out a small survey. A small hamlet with 42 houses had 24 patients. A single-teacher-school with 33 pupils had 13. All in all, the prevalence was 3%, one of the highest in the world. The findings broke his heart.

The very next day, (1954) Dr. Vedabodakam started the road-side-clinic – a concept unknown in this part of the country those days.

“Doctor Ayyaah has come in search of us, to our door-step”, they were excited, and crowded the clinic in large numbers.

But the rest of the village-population made a different calculation.

“Because the doctor has located the leprosy clinic in our village, not only the ‘lepers’ of our village, but also hundreds of others from the neighbouring hamlets flock to our village, thereby importing more infection, as if what we already have is not enough”, and drove him away.

Dr. Vedabodakam moved to the next village. Within weeks, these villagers too, meted out the same treatment.

Then he hopped onto the third, then the fourth, the fifth and the sixth. And finally the seventh time, he took refuge in a dilapidated old building. Its original inhabitants were cobras – a fact Dr. Vedabodakam did not know.

One day as the nurse opened the wooden drug box, out slithered a cobra opening its hood and hissing menacingly.

This was the last straw, which broke the camel’s back.

Dr. Vedabodakam dashed off to the District Collector, and narrated his tragic tale.

“Please give one cent of promboke land for our leprosy hospital”, he pleaded.

But the collector would not budge.

“If you don’t help”, thundered Dr. Vedabodakam, “my Heavenly Father would” and strode off.

Touched by Dr. Vedabodakam’s courage and faith, the Collector verified Dr. Vedabodakam’s claim and ordered the alienation of one acre of land in favour of St. Luke’s Leprosarium.

Dr. Vedabodakam put up a thatched shed and ran his clinic from there. A deeply religious person, Dr.Vedabodakam, shared his burden with other God’s children. They in turn stormed the citadels of Heaven with their prayers. Their prayers were heard by the Heaven and echoed back in England.
‘The Mission to Lepers’ (now the The Leprosy Mission) learnt of the plight of
Dr.Vedabodakam’s patients in a hyperendemic area and responded with a gift of Rs.23,000/-. With this, Dr. Vedabodakam built the first O.P.Block and cum ward for 6 inpatients in 1956.

Then the American Leprosy Mission pitched in with a gift of Rs.32,000/- with which the Women’s ward with 32 beds was built in 1963.

Afterwards the Central Agency Bonn (West) Germany came to the rescue gifting a Men’s Ward with 64 Beds costing more than three lakhs (1969).


What started off as a road-side-clinic under the shade of a tree has blossomed into a pucka leprosy hospital with nearly 100 beds and more than 1,000 outpatients from Southern Tamil Nadu. What more, it has a Home for 200 healthy children of leprosy-afflicted parents, mostly beggars.

There are only two Referral Centres of this kind in Southern Tamilnadu. St. Luke’s Leprosarium is one of them.

All because one man cared – took the pains to reach out to the huts and hearts of the poor ‘lepers’ to find out ‘Why’.

Secondly, it is purely a venture of faith. It did not start with a project and fund allocation. It was a leap into the dark, in response to a challenge.

Thirdly, it is an indigenous enterprise. Most mission hospitals were founded by foreign missions. St.Luke’s Leprosarium is an Indian initiative and endeavour.
Finally, it is an inspiring example of what God will do when one man cares.