St. Damien of Molokai, Beauty or Beast?

Updated on October 13, 2018
Bede le Venerable profile image

Bede is an artist with a long time interest in the lives of the saints.

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.

Source

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Damien as a twenty-three year old  seminarianYoung Damien before traveling to Hawai'i
Damien as a twenty-three year old  seminarian
Damien as a twenty-three year old seminarian | Source
Young Damien before traveling to Hawai'i
Young Damien before traveling to Hawai'i | Source

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.

Kalawao Bay at Kalaupapa, Molokai
Kalawao Bay at Kalaupapa, Molokai | Source

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Fr. Damien with one of the choirs detail of previous image
Fr. Damien with one of the choirs
Fr. Damien with one of the choirs | Source
detail of previous image
detail of previous image | Source

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.

The "Garden of the Dead" planted by Fr. Damien
The "Garden of the Dead" planted by Fr. Damien | Source

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.

An early photo of the colony on Molokai
An early photo of the colony on Molokai | Source

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.

This woman, named Upa, is an example of  those assisted by Fr. Damien.
This woman, named Upa, is an example of those assisted by Fr. Damien. | Source

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Church of St. Joseph on Molokai, constructed by Fr. DamienInside St. Joseph's; note the light and tasteful decorations.Another of Fr. Damien's churches, named Our Lady of Seven Sorrows
The Church of St. Joseph on Molokai, constructed by Fr. Damien
The Church of St. Joseph on Molokai, constructed by Fr. Damien | Source
Inside St. Joseph's; note the light and tasteful decorations.
Inside St. Joseph's; note the light and tasteful decorations. | Source
Another of Fr. Damien's churches, named Our Lady of Seven Sorrows
Another of Fr. Damien's churches, named Our Lady of Seven Sorrows | Source

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Fr. Damien in his final months; his injured right arm is in a sling.Fr. Damien near the end
Fr. Damien in his final months; his injured right arm is in a sling.
Fr. Damien in his final months; his injured right arm is in a sling. | Source
Fr. Damien near the end
Fr. Damien near the end | Source

Final Assessment

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

References

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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© 2018 Bede

Comments

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  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    7 days ago from Minnesota

    Thanks Miebakagh. Jesus’ opponents wondered why he ate with tax collectors and sinners. He seemed to have a special predilection for these types: lepers, the blind, possessed, and outcasts in general. He came for them. “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick.”

  • Miebakagh57 profile image

    Miebakagh Fiberesima 

    7 days ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

    Hello, Bede, yes that is quite true."Unclean, unclean." But Jesus identified Himself with lepers in the New Testament. I see it as the way St. Damien identifies himself taking the example of Jesus with the lepers in Molokai colony. He is segregated because of Governmental and health rules prevailing. Jesus who is sinless and almighty was not affected by leprosy. Many thanks again for sharing the story.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    8 days ago from Minnesota

    Hello Miebakagh, there’s a simple reason why Fr. Damien is a patron saint of outcasts. Society has generally shunned those afflicted with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) since Bible times. As you probably know, they had to carry a little bell and shout “unclean, unclean) when passing near healthy persons. It took some manly courage on the part of Fr. Damien to help those neglected persons. As such, the Hawaiian government wanted him to be segregated as well.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    8 days ago from Minnesota

    Hello Ann, thanks very much for your lovely comment and sharing that you named your son after Father Damien. I totally agree – all of us have a beastly side that needs to be tamed, as it were. It seems to me that the saints worked hard (with the help of grace), to allow the beautiful side to predominate.

    Shakespeare’s sonnet describes Fr. Damien perfectly. I recall from my reading, how much effort it took Fr. Damien in the first years to dress sores, etc. He apparently could not hold back his vomit many times. Through persistent and “unshaken” love, he managed to gain victory over that ordeal.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    8 days ago from Minnesota

    Hi Linda, thanks for your comment and for voting “beautiful.” I peeked at your article on Hansen’s disease to see what the politically correct term is for “leper.” Terms do carry a certain stigma, so I followed your example and put “patient.” Somehow, the controversies around Fr. Damien make him even more admirable, in my view, since he had to practice great virtue.

  • Miebakagh57 profile image

    Miebakagh Fiberesima 

    8 days ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

    Hello, Bede, noted, and good to know. But I do not see St. Damien of Molokai as an outcast. He alone volunteers to go and stay put as a missionary as you described in the story. Correct me if I am wrong. Many thanks.Happy Sunday!

  • Amble profile image

    Amble 

    8 days ago from Surrey United Kingdom

    This isn't something on which I would wish to vote as in my view all of us are both beautiful and beastly at various times Possibly many times a day.. It's part of being human. I would prefer to call him saintly. Being saintly doesn't mean he was set above others. He was deeply human but set the welfare of others before his own.

    From childhood, I was deeply interested and admiring of Father Damien ( as he was then), now St Damien.

    So much so that when we had a son, we named him Damien after Father Damien.

    He had a great love which was never shaken. As Shakespeare's Sonnet 16 says

    "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. Nor bends with the remover to remove. Oh no, it is an ever fixed mark which looks on tempests and is never shaken,"

    Also from Shakespeare

    Duke Senior:

    “Sweet are the uses of adversity,

    Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,

    Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;

    And this our life, exempt from public haunt,

    Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

    Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

    As You Like It Act 2, scene 1, 12–17

    No, for me Father Damian was neither beauty nor beast but fully human and fully alive. Alive to the needs of others at whatever cost to himself.

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 

    8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

    I first heard about Father Damien a long time ago and have always admired him. Thank you for this look at his life and the controversies about him. I'm glad I've learned about the criticisms, which I hadn't heard of before, but I was still happy to vote "beautiful" in your poll.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    9 days ago from Minnesota

    Hi Mary, thanks for the comment. Beneath his difficult appearance was a heart of gold. He is one of the patron saints for outcasts in society.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    9 days ago from Minnesota

    Thanks Miebakagh, let’s remain optimistic.

  • aesta1 profile image

    Mary Norton 

    9 days ago from Ontario, Canada

    What an admirable person. He may have looked beastly at the end but he did something beautiful for the outcasts of society such as the lepers.

  • Miebakagh57 profile image

    Miebakagh Fiberesima 

    9 days ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

    Bede, yes. The days are coming. Such peoples will be destiny by God. Many thanks.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    9 days ago from Minnesota

    Hello Miebakagh, thanks for stopping in to read and comment. I agree, Jesus set the standard for Father Damien to follow. The funny thing is that Fr. Damien didn’t care about the notoriety. He saw the need and wanted to help. Let’s hope there will come more people like him to change the world for the better.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    9 days ago from Minnesota

    Oztinato, thanks for having a read and the comment. I heard about him also sometime back, but it was only in doing research for this article that I came to realize just how amazing he was.

    So, he must have made an impression if you wanted to draw his portrait. His face went through many changes and after he died, all the ravages of leprosy disappeared. Apparently that’s normal though.

  • Miebakagh57 profile image

    Miebakagh Fiberesima 

    9 days ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

    Hello, Bede, Jesus in His earthly works leaves us an example. He always identified Himself with sinners, and not with highly placed men. The case of Zach looks unique because he sees himself as a sinner in need of a savior. The woman with the alabaster flask of oil is another who looks to Jesus, and He immediately pictures himself to help her out.

    Men like Father Damien, are the real world changer. Thank God for such fellow. There are rare in the world, otherwise, Jesus has speedily returned, and take over the kingdoms of the earth for His peoples. Thank you.

  • Oztinato profile image

    Oztinato 

    9 days ago from Australia

    Great hub. It brought back an old forgotten childhood memory for me. I recalled first hearing about Father Damian in primary school. His story made a lasting impression on me. His life is about the incomprehensible selflessness of certain rare individuals.

    I also recalled sketching his face..

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