St. Damien of Molokai, Beauty or Beast?
Robert Louis Stevenson’s blood once boiled like a pot of good Scottish oats. The cause was a letter published in a Sydney newspaper that slandered Fr. Damien, the leper priest of Molokai. RLS, author of several 19th -century classics such as Treasure Island, and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, spent the last four years of his life in Hawai’i coping with tuberculosis. While there, he visited the leper colony of Kalawao, Molokai, shortly after the death of Father (now Saint) Damien. RLS interviewed many patients who knew him, non-Catholics included. Although Presbyterian, he came away convinced that Fr. Damien was no small saint. Hence, after reading the slanderous letter, his fury found release only by writing a six-thousand-word defense of the man whom he considered a father.
Before examining the letter, it is well to know more of Father Damien. He was born Jozef de Veuster in Tremeloo, Belgium on January 3, 1840. His early life passed on the family farm, which equipped him with a strong body, immense practical knowledge, and an industrious spirit. These endowments proved most beneficial in his later work.
Jozef desired to be a priest since he was a child. He joined his older brother, Pamphile, already a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. His superiors thought Jozef lacked sufficient education for the priesthood, however, but through hard work and his brother’s help, he won their confidence. At his first vows, he received the name Damien, after an early Christian martyr. Though not yet ordained, he volunteered to go to the Hawaiian Islands in place of his brother, who fell sick with typhus.
As a missionary, he served the Catholic population on the island of Hawai’i. When an epidemic of leprosy spread on the islands, the government “exiled” the afflicted to the island of Molokai to avoid contagion. In time, the Catholic exiles requested the ministrations of a priest. Because of the repulsive work, the Bishop intended to have four priests go there on a rotation basis; however, Fr. Damien volunteered to stay for life.
From the beginning, Fr. Damien wanted the patients to understand that he was not afraid of them. As he wrote to his brother in Europe, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ." Indeed, he ate with them, dressed their sores, built coffins, churches, roads, a hospital, and organized their lives. He treated them with dignity and ministered to their spiritual needs until, after sixteen years, he succumbed to the disease. He died on April 15, 1889, aged 49.
Now, let us address the slanderous letter. The author was Rev. Dr. Charles McEwen Hyde, a Presbyterian minister from Honolulu, who met Fr. Damien once. Here is a portion of Dr. Hyde’s letter to Rev. H.B. Gage: “The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness.”
In the following examination, RLS will respond to the accusations with a portion of his defense. Additional testimony will fill out what we now know of Fr. Damien’s life. You, dear reader, be the judge. Where possible, the terms patient or exile will replace “leper.”
Father Damien Was "Coarse"
RLS “It is very possible. You make us sorry for the lepers, who had only an old coarse peasant for their friend and father. But you, who were so refined, why were you not there, to cheer them with the lights of culture? Or may I remind you that we have some reason to doubt if John the Baptist were genteel; and in the case of Peter, on whose career you doubtless dwell approvingly…no doubt he was a ‘coarse, headstrong’ fisherman!”
Fr. Damien most likely lacked polish in his manners. He grew up on a Belgian farm, after all. Nonetheless, he did his utmost to make the patients feel like normal human beings. For instance, he organized a choir, made musical instruments, and brought several others to create a large band. They entertained distinguished visitors to the settlement, such as Queen Liliuokalani, who wept uncontrollably while they serenaded her. If Fr. Damien lacked personal elegance, he surely succeeded in bringing refinement to his patients.
Father Damien Was "Dirty"
RLS “He was. Think of the poor lepers annoyed with this dirty comrade! But the clean Dr. Hyde was at his food in a fine house.”
Yes indeed, Fr. Damien poured out his sweat and dirtied his hands: he worked the earth and taught the exiles how to farm. He ate poi with them, using his hands, as was their custom. He cleansed wounds, cut away rotting flesh, and put fresh bandages on the patients. He also fed those who could no longer feed themselves. He milked the cows so that the children could have milk. Moreover, his body odor must have peeled bark off trees, considering the vast number of building projects he undertook.
Before his arrival, the patients would tie their dead members between two poles and toss them into a ravine where wild pigs would devour their flesh. Fr. Damien promptly ended this grisly custom. In all, he made approximately 1400 coffins, personally dug the graves, and gave them a proper religious burial. Yes, Fr. Damien was indeed down and dirty, sweaty and smelly, all for love’s sake.
Father Damien Was "Headstrong"
RLS “I believe you are right again, and I thank God for his strong head and heart.”
Fr. Damien frequently locked horns with government officials, particularly the Board of Health, to improve living conditions on the colony. He was a scrappy old goat until change took place.
Father Damien Was "Bigoted"
RLS “What is meant by bigotry, that we should regard it as a blemish in a priest? Damien believed his own religion with the simplicity of a peasant or a child, as I would suppose that you do. For this, I wonder at him some way off; and had that been his only character, should have avoided him in life. But the point of interest in Damien, which has caused him to be so much talked about and made him at last the subject of your pen and mine, was that, in him, his bigotry, his intense and narrow faith, wrought potently for good, and strengthened him to be one of the world’s heroes and exemplars.”
Fr. Damien’s so-called bigotry impelled him to see Jesus in his suffering brothers and sisters: “As you did it for the least of these my brethren, you did it for me…I was hungry and you gave me food…I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (see Mt 25:35-40)
Father Damien "Was not Sent to Molokai"
RLS “Is this a misreading? Or do you really mean the words for blame? I have heard Christ, in the pulpits of our Church, held up for imitation on the ground that His sacrifice was voluntary. Does Dr. Hyde think otherwise?”
Before Fr. Damien, a priest visited the colony once a year. The Catholic exiles asked that a priest could remain with them. As Fr. Damien felt a particular calling to Molokai, when his bishop asked for volunteers among his priests to minister there, Fr. Damien sprang to his feet. The bishop intended to have four priests rotate yearly on that difficult assignment. Fr. Damien went first and volunteered to stay for life.
Father Damien "Did not Stay at the Settlement"
RLS “It is true he was allowed many indulgences. Am I to understand that you blame the father for profiting by these, or the officers for granting them? In either case, it is a mighty Spartan standard to issue from the house on Beretania Street; and I am convinced you will find yourself with few supporters.”
Fr. Damien arrived on Molokai in May of 1873. In June, he went to Honolulu to purchase necessary supplies, such as lumber. While there, the local newspaper praised his work. In response, the Board of Health felt that he should have had their authorization first. In consequence, they gave him permission to stay there on condition that he observe the same laws of segregation observed by the exiles. In other words, stay there for life. Fr. Damien did stay for life though at times he went to Honolulu to conduct necessary business, such as to seek new medications for the patients.
Father Damien "Had no Hand in the Reforms"
RLS “At a blow, and with the price of his life, he made the place illustrious and public. And that, if you will consider largely, was the one reform needful; pregnant of all that should succeed. It brought money, it brought (best addition of them all), the sisters [Franciscan Sisters]; it brought supervision, for public opinion and public interest landed with the man at Kalawao. If ever a man brought reforms and died to bring them, it was he.”
The reforms initiated by Fr. Damien are too numerous to describe in full, yet some are worth noting. When he first arrived, the situation was nothing short of bedlam. The exiles boasted, “Here there is no law!” Fr. Damien worked patiently but persistently to change the moral decay. For instance, he stemmed the drunken orgies, robbery, and mistreatment of the weaker members.
After a hurricane destroyed most of the homes, he immediately began a building program. He taught the exiles how to build and made his tools available. Before long, rows of whitewashed homes sprang up. This naturally gave the occupants a sense of civic pride. He also worked tirelessly with government officials to raise the allowance of the patients from six dollars a year to ten dollars. Likewise, he continually waged battles with the Board of Health over the types and quantities of food made available to the patients. To this end, he gathered a multitude of animals, such as cows, pigs, chickens, and fish, to augment the patient’s meager diet of rice and potatoes.
In addition to the patient’s physical health, he sought to build them up emotionally, scarred as they were. He visited every one of them at least once a week, for example, to check on his or her physical and spiritual well-being. He also organized games, such as horseracing, and luaus, or Hawaiian barbecues. When new patients arrived soaking wet on the shores, he welcomed them with coffee and hot food. Spiritually, he administered the sacraments and constructed beautiful chapels, full of light and tasteful decorations.
Finally, he learned essential medical practices from a health official, including amputation, bandaging, etc. After this instruction, he went to the hospital every morning and tended the wounded, included amputation of putrefied flesh. He visited the cabins and periodically washed and scrubbed them. His other works include an orphanage, schools, and piped-in water, an essential element for life and cleanliness.
Father Damien "Was not a Pure Man"
RLS “How do you know that? Is this the nature of the conversation in that house on Beretania Street, which the cabman envied, driving past? - racy details of the misconduct of the poor peasant priest, toiling under the cliffs of Molokai?” RLS then goes on at length, unraveling the source of this baseless rumor that caused such grief to Fr. Damien’s last years.
Dr. Hyde held to the myopic idea, common among laymen of those times that leprosy was in consequence of sexual misconduct. As he knew Fr. Damien was leprous, he concluded that it was due to lechery and syphilis. To silence all such slander, Fr. Damien submitted to a doctor’s examination, which revealed not a trace of syphilis. Yet, his detractors were not convinced.
Br. Joseph Dutton, an American volunteer at Molokai in Fr. Damien’s last years, left an objective account of his character. He indicates that while Fr. Damien may have had personality defects, his selfless love for the lepers and personal piety were indisputable. He wrote down Fr. Damien’s last testament before death; Fr. Damien confirmed that he “never had intercourse with anyone whatsoever” during his whole life. His critics, perhaps jealous of his worldwide notoriety, sought to smear his character.
Was Fr. Damien a beauty or a beast? Undeniably, he appeared hideous at the end: disfigured and full of sores, much like Christ on the Cross. Also like Jesus, he gave his life voluntarily so that others may benefit; “Greater love has no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) Indeed, it is well-nigh impossible to fathom how one man could have accomplished all that Fr. Damien did for the exiles on Molokai.
Yet, despite his obvious transformation of the colony, he paradoxically experienced a sense of failure in his last years. This was due partly to the disintegration of his body, making him feel useless, but also depression, one of the effects of leprosy (Hansen’s disease). Painful also to him was the tide of misunderstanding and slander that crashed on the shores of his soul. In the final assessment, I’m of the opinion that Fr. Damien is one of the most beautiful persons ever to walk this earth. His selfless love, dedication, and accomplishments are most rare.
The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Fr. Damien of Molokai…It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.— Mohandas K. Gandhi
Apostle of the Exiled, St. Damien of Molokai, by Margaret and Matthew Bunson, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Huntington, Indiana, 2009
Modern Saints, Their Lives and Faces, Vol.1, by Ann Ball, Tan Books and Publishers, INC, 1983
Kalaupapa and the Legacy of Father Damien, by Anwei V. Skinsnes Law and Richard A. Wisniewski, Pacific Basin Enterprises
Father Damien by Robert Louis Stevenson
An article with additional facts
Verdict: Father Damien Was...
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