My Brother’s Keeper: St. Joseph’s Hospital


2017 / March

Sanya Huang /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Robert Green

Throughout the six decades since its founding in 1955, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Yun­lin County has been watching over the health of the local population. Several times it has been voted the best medical center in Yun­lin, and has received 11 Medical Dedication Awards. It acts as a good neighbor (in the Christian sense) to the people of Yun­lin. Nicknamed the “three treasures of St. Joseph’s,” senior staff members Father Antoine Pierrot, chaplain Godelieve Franssens and pediatrician Dr. Marguerite Billiet traveled from abroad to dedicate their lives to St. Joseph’s. Today, now that Yun­lin has numerous medical centers, St. Joseph’s has fulfilled the mission that it undertook in a different era, and the three are growing old. How then can they pass the torch of holistic care to a new generation and continue to deliver health and hope? This is the challenge the hospital faces as it seeks to transform and modernize itself.


In the 1950s, after the chaos of the war years, Taiwan faced a dire shortage of medical facilities. Fortunately the Catholic Church founded clinics around the island and brought in trained medical personnel and specialist equipment from overseas to fill the gap.

In 1955, the Catholic Church established St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hu­wei, Yun­lin County, and today it is still a major provider of medical services locally. In the 1950s, outside the main urban centers there were some doctors practicing who had trained in Japan, but they were prohibitively costly for the average person. For this reason, Bishop Thomas Niu of the ­Chiayi Diocese decided to establish a nonprofit hospital in Hu­wei that would provide medical care locally to ordinary people. 

St. Joseph’s: Pioneers of healthcare in Yunlin

In 1953 Father Antoine Pierrot accepted the task of setting up St. Joseph’s. He boarded a flight from the Netherlands, his native land, to Rome. He then traveled to the port of Genoa, near Milan, to catch a freighter, and arrived in Taiwan in 1954, eager to help Bishop Niu establish the hospital.

After the hospital building was completed in December 1955, Bishop Niu invited Fr. Georges Massin, a Belgian native, to come to Taiwan to serve as the hospital’s first director. In those early days, the hospital staff consisted of only two doctors and two nurses, who were assisted by ten nuns. “The whole hospital was like a big family,” says obstetrician and gynecologist Cai Meng­hong, who doubles as a family medicine practitioner. “Father Massin was always forgiving and compassionate. It was really moving, and made you want to work your hardest. No one had to tell you to do anything. You just felt ashamed if you didn’t take things upon yourself.”

Today St. Joseph’s is staffed by more than 700 people, and the number of hospital beds has increased to 361. It is a regional teaching hospital that offers comprehensive treatment. It established Yun­lin County’s first pediatric intensive care unit (1985), first 24-hour emergency pediatric service (1998), and first hospice (2006).

Antoine Pierrot: A beautiful gift for Chiayi Diocese

In 1954 Fr. Pierrot arrived in Taiwan to take up the mission that he had volunteered for. He dedicated most of his time to establishing and developing St. Joseph’s. “In this hospital we take care of the whole person, mind, body and soul. That’s what we call holistic care.”

But no matter how busy he was, he went to the hospital day in and day out, rain or shine, visiting patients in their rooms and saying prayers for them. He also devoted himself to the care of the staff and their families. Over six decades, he helped countless families through critical moments in their lives.

Some years ago, when the former head of accounting at St. Joseph’s, Wu Jun­nan, was diagnosed with cancer, Pierrot’s presence gave him tremendous comfort and allowed him to experience serenity and God’s embrace as he neared death. “When he was hospitalized, Father Pierrot was also ill and staying in the hospital,” says Wu’s wife, ­Chang Mei Jung, who works in the hospital’s planning office. “He insisted on visiting in his wheelchair every day and encouraged us to remain positive.”

After Wu Jun­nan succumbed to his illness, Pierrot led the funeral mass for his old friend, despite being ill. “He shared in our joys, and in difficult times he was always there to help us get through our sorrows,” ­Chang recalls, doing her best to hold back her tears.

Pierrot formerly spent a decade shouldering the responsibility of collecting donations at churches all around the United States. The majority of the funds were used to expand St. Joseph’s, but they also brought to the Chiayi Diocese a most beautiful gift—the Church of St. Augustine, completed in 1962. Pierrot enlisted the help of Francisco Borboa, a painter of religious themes, to design the avant-garde trapezoidal building, the form of which is based on the image of a pair of praying hands. Just like the church, Fr. Pierrot is also a beautiful gift given by God to the Chiayi Diocese.

Godelieve Franssens: Appreciating life’s beauty

In 1967, at the age of 28, Godelieve Franssens, a Belgian national, arrived in Taiwan to assume responsibilities as a midwife and nurse. During the baby boom of the 1970s and 1980s, she personally assisted in the birth of a great number of children. During that time, the greatest number of deliveries recorded at St. Joseph’s was 400 newborns in a single month. Bassinets that had been relegated to storerooms were pressed back into service but still more were needed. Franssens hit on the idea of taking out drawers and using them as bassinets, and as if by magic she also managed to fit four babies into each incubator.

Now that she has officially retired, she continues to work as a chaplain for the hospital’s pastoral care department, bringing comfort to patients. In describing her interactions with other people, she loves to use the words “really beautiful.” “There was one time that a girl had just died of cancer and her mother, who had raised her on her own, was busy giving instructions to the people who were washing and dressing her daughter, while at the same time glaring angrily at the girl’s father, who had abandoned them years before,” Franssens recalls. “The father rushed to the hospital on learning that his daughter had died, but the mother wouldn’t let him near her.”

The father could only sit silently in a corner and wait. Finally when they were about to put a hat on the girl’s head, the mother’s heart softened, and she let the father come forward to do this one last thing for their daughter. “Isn’t that a beautiful thing?” Franssens says.

After witnessing so many births and deaths, the majesty of life made struggle and suffering pale in significance. Perhaps as a result, Franssens knows how to appreciate the beauty of life. She walked with us out through the front entrance of St. Joseph’s to stroll through the market on Hu­wei’s Zhong­zheng Street. “It’s fantastic. I would never have thought that in my seventies I would still be able to pop out during work and visit the market,” she says with joy.

Marguerite Billiet: Giving is its own reward

In the hospital’s early days, the medical staff was stretched thin, so Fr. Georges Massin appealed to the church to recruit more doctors from abroad. Thus it was that Marguerite Billiet, who would receive a Medical Dedication Award in 2002, became affiliated with St. Joseph’s. “Father Massin returned to Belgium about once every five years,” Billiet explains. “On one trip, he paid a visit to my home. At the time I was still in medical school, and I still needed to complete my training in pediatric medicine. After becoming certified in pediatrics and arriving in Taiwan, I still had to learn Chinese. Father Massin thus had to wait for me for five years.”

In 1980, Billiet arrived in Taiwan and put her skills to work, treating countless premature newborns and sick children. 

“She is the only pediatrician in Taiwan who requires patients to strip down for a detailed full-body examination,” observes ­Soong Wei-tsuen, a former director of St. Joseph’s. This is the result of Dr. Billiet’s rigorous pediatric training in Belgium. Through a close examination of the entire body, she is better able to arrive at a comprehensive assessment of a patient’s condition. St. Joseph’s excels at caring for premature infants, who are at high risk for infant mortality. In these cases, the nursing staff feed milk to the children in tiny doses, starting from one to two cubic centimeters and gradually increasing to 5‡6 cc, to reduce the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis caused by overeating. In this way, premature infants slowly build their body weight to normal levels and can be released from the hospital.

Billiet, however, shies away from accepting praise for her own contributions. “You say that it’s extraordinary for us to travel from abroad to practice here,” she says. “I think what the nurses do is even more praiseworthy. They come to the hospital and care for the children of others while looking after their own children and family members too. There is one nurse who has two kids but always requests the night shift so that she can take care of her sick mother-in-law in the daytime. How could anyone say that these people are not really impressive?”

“I often feel that what we doctors and nurses give pales in comparison to what we get back,” Dr. Billiet says. One patient that left a particularly deep impression was an impressive, intelligent and optimistic child who suffered from muscular dystrophy. The disease is incurable and causes the muscles in the entire body to slowly lose strength until the patient finally is unable to breathe. When the child’s condition became critical, she was placed in intensive care. “Every time she saw me she smiled. A few days later, she passed away,” Billiet says. “She really understood how to live and to look on the bright side. In the midst of her suffering she still greeted others with smiles. What she gave me was infinitely more than I could give her.”    

A cycle of health and hope

But in an era when medicine is pursuing performance-driven management, how can St. Joseph’s adopt new management paradigms yet still preserve the compassion and ethos of a Catholic hospital? Moreover, now that Yunlin has a good number of large-scale hospitals, St. Joseph’s original mission of making up the shortfall in what government and society could provide in terms of local medical care is no longer relevant.

“In the past, they traveled all the way from Europe to donate their services here,” ­Soong Wei-tsuen says. “But now they are old. Surely the people of Taiwan can shoulder this burden themselves and carry on St. Joseph’s mission of caring for the people of Yunlin.”

Just as the selfless contributions of Antoine Pierrot, Godelieve Franssens and Marguerite Billiet—transcending ethnicity, nationality and faith—enabled even more people to stand on their own two feet, perhaps in the future these people will return the favor by caring for others, and by doing so bring even more health and hope into the world.

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