St Damien of Molokai

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Ever since seeing the David Wenham film “Molokai”, I have had a real soft spot for this saint, and am glad to see he made it to canonisation recently. There is an excellent article on St Damien on the Catholic World Report site: The Apostle to the Lepers.

There is an interesting comment in this article about the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911) entry on Fr Damien:

Damien’s superiors, however, could not picture their difficult charge as a saint. (Compare the coolness of the original Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Damien composed by one of them with the article on Molokai written by Joseph Dutton.) The flourishing Sacred Hearts Fathers did little to promote his canonization cause until 1938, when his generation of superiors was dead.

Wondering what they meant, I went to the Catholic Encyclopedia on the Web, which is, I believe, the original edition, and found the article in question:

Missionary priest, born at Tremeloo, Belgium, 3 January 1840; died at Molokai, Hawaii, 15 April 1889.

His father, a small farmer, sent him to a college at Braine-le-Comte, to prepare for a commercial profession; but as a result of a mission given by the Redemptorists in 1858, Joseph decided to become a religious. He entered the novitiate of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary at Louvain, and took in religion the name of Damien. He was admitted to the religious profession, 7 Oct. 1860. Three years later, though still in minor orders, he was sent to the mission of the Hawaiian Islands, where he arrived, 19 March, 1864. Ordained priest at Honolulu 24 May of the same year, he was later given charge of various districts on the island of Hawaii, and, animated with a burning zeal, his robust constitution allowed him to give full play to the impulses of his heart. He was not only the missionary of the natives, but also constructed several chapels with his own hands, both in Hawaii and in Molokai.

On the latter island there had grown up a leper settlement where the Government kept segregated all persons afflicted with the loathsome disease. The board of health supplied the unfortunates with food and clothing, but was unable in the beginning to provide them with either resident physicians or nurses. On 10 May, 1873, Father Damien, at his own request and with the sanction of his bishop, arrived at the settlement as its resident priest. There were then 600 lepers. “As long as the lepers can care for themselves”, wrote the superintendent of the board of health to Bishop Maigret, “they are comparatively comfortable, but as soon as the dreadful disease renders them helpless, it would seem that even demons themselves would pity their condition and hasten their death.” For a long time, however, Father Damien was the only one to bring them the succour they so greatly needed. He not only administered the consolations of religion, but also rendered them such little medical service and bodily comforts as were within his power. He dressed their ulcers, helped them erect their cottages, and went so far as to dig their graves and make their coffins. After twelve years of this heroic service he discovered in himself the first symptoms of the disease. This was in 1885. He nevertheless continued his charitable ministrations, being assisted at this period by two other priests and two lay brothers. On 28 March, 1889, Father Damien became helpless and passed away shortly after, closing his fifteenth year in the service of the lepers.

Certain utterances concerning his morality called forth Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-known philippic against the Rev. Dr. Hyde, wherein the memory of the Apostle of the Lepers is brilliantly vindicated. In addition a correspondence in the “Pacific Commercial Advertiser”, 20 June, 1905, completely removes from the character of Father Damien every vestige of suspicion, proving beyond a doubt that Dr. Hyde’s insinuations rested merely on misunderstandings.

Hmm. Definitely “cool”. How about the bit about “his robust constitution allowed him to give full play to the impulses of his heart“!? or the description of the lepers as “persons afflicted with the loathsome disease”; or the comment that Fr Damien “went so far as to dig their graves and make their coffins”!

In the same edition we find the “article on Molokai written by Joseph Dutton”. There we read:

Father Damien and the Franciscan Sisters
It is the name of Father Damien, however, that has made Molokai known throughout the whole world. He came to the Molokai Settlement to remain, 11 May, 1873. Good order in the settlement was somewhat precarious. Damien’s determined character proved to be of great value. Besides his priestly offices, there was opportunity for his efforts at every turn. With a hungry zeal for work, he accomplished many things for the good of the place; he helped the authorities, and brought about a good spirit among the people. Ten years later (1883) the Franciscan Sisters came to Honolulu from Syracuse, N.Y., having been engaged by the Hawaiian Government. They expected coming to the settlement at once, but the authorities concluded that conditions there were unsuitable, that better order must be secured, and some improvements made in buildings, etc. So the sisters remained at Kakaako Branch Hospital, near Honolulu, for about six years, a certain number of newly gathered lepers being retained there. The hospital was given up when the sisters came to Molokai. At the settlement in 1883 conditions would indeed have been intolerable for the sisters, and the same was true in 1886 when the writer joined Father Damien; but matters were being gradually improved. At last three sisters came to Kalaupapa 15 Nov., 1888. Bishop Home for girls and women had been built. Two more sisters came 6 May, 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson coming by the same boat for a visit. Father Damien died 15 April, 1889. His death, after such a life, arrested the world’s attention. A spontaneous outburst of applause from everywhere at once followed. The sixteen years of labour on Molokai made a record that seemed unique to the world at large. The world knew very little about lepers, and Father Damien’s life came as a startling revelation of heroic self-sacrifice. He is acknowledged the Apostle of the lepers, and whatever others may do in the same field will help to perpetuate his fame and honour. A monument was offered by the people of England, and accepted by the Hawaiian Board of Health. It was given a place at Kalaupapa, not far from the steamer landing, near the public road now called “Damien Road”, adjoining the sisters’ place at Bishop Home. The monument in itself is interesting, being an antique cross, fashioned and adapted from stone cutting of about the sixth century, such as was found in the ruins of the Seven Churches of Clonmacnoise on the river Shannon, Ireland. It was transferred by the Board of Health to the Catholic Mission on 11 Sept., 1893, the Bishop coming to receive and bless it. Two miles away, at the other end of the Damien Road, in Kalawao, the body of Father Damien lies, close by the church, where the Pandanus tree stood that sheltered him on his arrival in 1873. Over this grave stands a simple cross with the inscription on one side, “Father Damien”, on the other, “Damien Deveuster”. The strong wooden coffin was placed in an excavation, and imbedded in a solid block of concrete. Since Father Damien’s time, two priests have usually been on duty at the settlement, one at Kalawao, the other at Kalaupapa. Father Pamphile Deveuster, Damien’s brother, was here in 1895-7; he returned to Belgium and died there 29 July, 1909.

Yes. “Getting warm”, as they say.

If you haven’t seen the film, get it out and watch it. It might be hagiography, but it is good hagiography and very moving. David Wenham plays Damien perfectly.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “St Damien of Molokai

  1. David Kennedy

    The coolness isn’t hard to understand, and might have been of a piece with Hyde’s disdain. Men like Damian show us up, don’t they?

    But in doing so, hopefully they stir us up too.

  2. jules

    May his example be a beacon to the Church in Belgium and everywhere!

  3. Ever since seeing the David Wenham film “Molokai”, I have had a real soft spot for this saint

    Me too!

    I love Fr Damien now and I’ll always love David Wenham for his wonderful portrayal too.

    St Damien, pray for us.

  4. Paul

    As well as seeing the film Molokai, the other thing you can do is read the book by Hilde Eynikel on which it is based. She was given access to the order’s records and letters to research her book, and the film is very faithful to the book. One remarkable thing about the film is that the scenes in the leper colony are filmed on the real location, so you see the real, wind-swept environment there.
    I have a very vivid memory of being told about Damien when I was in year 4 at school in Sydney. I think it was vivid because of the heroism of Damien as well as the exotic location. Years later I lived in Belgium for a while, and it seemed that every second Catholic organisation there is called the “Pater Damiaan Institut”.
    There are many, many remarkable things about Damien’s story, but a few at random are:

    – the letter written by Robert Louis Stevenson to Rev Hyde in defence of Damien was written while he was in Sydney (staying in Bridge St, I think). It was originally sent to the Sydney Morning Herald, but they refused to publish it at first. (It is interesting to think that the Rev Hyde became the model of Hyde of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but is not true – the book preceded the letter.)

    – there are several theories about why Fr Damien’s cause for sainthood was not pursued enthusiastically: he became world-renowned for his work and a lot of money and gifts were sent directly to him, bypassing his superiors, which reinforced the accusations that Damien sought fame and was stubborn. Damien enthusiastically used these gifts (famously rebuilding the wooden altar in one of the churches to support a heavy tabernacle given to him, rather than let the Bishop have it). Also, at the time, people thought leprosy was a consequence of syphilis, encouraging false rumours of Damien’s loose living in the colony. The truth is that syphilis weakens the immune system, so it is true that one can lead to the other, but it is not necessary cause and effect.

    – once you have lived in Belgium, you appreciate the significance of Damien being Flemish, rather than French speaking. The story is that he was treated as the ignorant country bumpkin in the seminary.

    – the story of Damien seeking Confession is also in Hilde Eynikel’s book. Damien thought himself stubborn and bad tempered and said he could not survive without someone hearing his Confession. Funnily enough, when the Bishop asked the other priests to visit him on the leper colony, they all said they had other, important things to do, and with great regret, could not do it. Finally the Bishop thought that as he had sent Damien, he had to go himself.

    – there is a whole story behind the order of nuns who went to the colony. Damien was asking for nuns from very early on, but there were many complications and detours before they finally turned up.

    – I wondered why someone with such a saintly name as Joseph would have to change it to Damien when he became a priest. Then I googled and read about Sts Cosmas and Damian and perhaps that is the answer.

    As I said, an inspiring person and story.

  5. Kiran

    I wasn’t sure about some elements of the movie, I am sure you can guess which.

  6. the letter written by Robert Louis Stevenson to Rev Hyde in defence of Damien was written while he was in Sydney

    Yes! It’s a corker!

    It’s here:
    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/281/281-h/281-h.htm