Photo/IllutrationMary Helena Cornwall Legh, center, and children (Provided by the St. Barnabas' Church in the Diocese of Kita-Kanto of Nippon Sei Ko Kai)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KUSATSU, Gunma Prefecture--The town government here bestowed honorary citizenship on a British missionary who committed herself to helping leprosy patients for 20 years in prewar Japan.

The town assembly on Sept. 2 approved the plan to include Mary Helena Cornwall Legh (1857-1941), who was known as “the mother of Kusatsu,” in the list of illustrious residents.

Her inclusion was proposed by the 23-member Ms. Cornwall Legh Memorial Society last year.

Legh moved to Kusatsu in 1916 to start the St. Barnabas’ Mission campaign in the Yunosawa district.

Using her own money and other funds, she set up a care center, kindergarten and hospital to provide not only life support but also educational and medical assistance for those with Hansen’s disease.

Details of her activities can be read at the Legh Kasama Memorial Hall, which sits adjacent to the St. Barnabas’ Church in the Diocese of Kita-Kanto of Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Anglican Church in Japan). Kasama means mother in Japanese.

“Many patients with various conditions visited Kusatsu to improve their health by bathing in spas,” said Makoto Matsuura, 58, a pastor at the church. “Those suffering from Hansen’s disease, who were especially exposed to severe discrimination, must have found great solace thanks to Legh’s program.”

Legh is known to have established a nursery school for children of leprosy patients, and her Hansen’s disease program is said to have been one of the largest private efforts of its kind in Japan.

The hospital, the evening English language school and other educational facilities were also available to local residents. Up to 800 people are estimated to have used those establishments that were introduced as part of Legh’s mission.

After the National Sanitarium Kuriu-Rakusenen was installed here in 1932, leprosy patients were transferred to the new facility. Four years later, Legh started living in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, known for its warm climate, because of the state of her health and her age.

Her care program ended in April 1941.

Legh died at the age of 84 in December, immediately after war broke out between Japan and the United States.

In accordance with her will, Legh’s remains were kept at the ossuary of the St. Barnabas' Church, where the bones of leprosy patients were also stored.

The land that housed facilities built with her private funds was donated to the municipal government and turned into a recreation park to commemorate Legh’s achievements.

“I hope residents will renew a sense of appreciation for Legh,” said Toshihiko Ogiwara, 83, chairman of the Ms. Cornwall Legh Memorial Society.

Legh is the fourth honorary citizen of Kusatsu. The list also includes the late Joyo Osaka, a professor emeritus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology who long devoted himself to surveys of the volcano Mount Kusatsu-Shiranesan.