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Religion: Return of Damien

6 minute read

When, in 1873, an obscure young Belgian missionary priest named Father Damien begged the Catholic Prefect Apostolic of the Hawaiian Islands to send him to a leper colony 50 miles away, the name of Molokai meant nothing to the outside world. Molokai is an island to which the Hawaiian Government had exiled all its lepers after a frightful outbreak of the disease, a lawless chaos whose 800 foul inhabitants lived a slow death in huts, with only one another’s company and the sweet intoxicating juice of the ki tree for distraction. Father Damien changed that, and in so doing made himself and Molokai famed.

With help only from the few lepers who were not ready for the grave, he built cottages, an aqueduct, schools, a church, a dispensary. A husky peasant, the missionary dressed the rotting sores of his wards. Mildly he wrote a brother at home that he felt “some repugnance” in hearing confession of the near-dead, that he scarce knew how to administer Extreme Unction since it involved anointing hands and feet that were “raw wounds.”

After eleven years at the Molokai leper colony, Father Damien one Sunday addressed his congregation not with his usual “Brethren,” but “We lepers.” During the next five years his face took on the leper’s look, leonine, patchy, with fierce eyes and thick lips. In 1889 Father Damien died, aged 49. His people buried him in the churchyard.

With passing years the Hawaiian Government moved Martyr Damien’s colony from Kalawao to Kalaupapa, some three miles away. Under the leadership of King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, Britons subscribed a granite monument for Damien’s grave, a Damien Institute for leprosy study in England. Last year the Hawaiian Territorial Legislature appropriated $3,000 to care for the grave and the church. But the spot remained neglected of men, with few visitors until this week. Then, according to long laid plans, the remains of Father Damien were dug up, started on a journey half way around the world.

At Honolulu dignitaries representing Church and State boarded airplanes and a U. S. tug for the short trip to Kalaupapa. There, with a Japanese cameraman filming the proceedings and Honolulu Undertaker Jacob K. Ordenstein directing operations, nuns, clergy and officials stood by the grave, watched its concrete top cracked away, the plain coffin exhumed. Because there was no longer any danger of spreading Bacillus leprae, no need existed to sterilize Father Damien’s mouldering bones and dust, according to President Frederick E. Trotter of the Honolulu Board of Health. In an undersized, zinc-lined coffin of koa wood, the remains were flown back to Honolulu, where they lay in state. Aboard the U. S. Army transport Republic, the coffin was to be carried to Cristobal, C. Z., transferred to the Belgian schoolship Mercator, taken on to Antwerp. In Belgium the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary, Father Damien’s order, have already set in motion the long, deliberate machinery by which the Roman Catholic Church canonizes saints. So insistent were pious Belgians, so sure that the presence of Father Damien’s dust in a proper shrine might work wonders, that King Leopold III personally wrote President Roosevelt last autumn, secured the U. S. Government’s help in taking Father Damien back to his native land.

In planning the translation of Father Damien, the clergy were meticulously careful not to permit any ceremonies which might seem to suggest that he was already saintly. In all canonization causes the Roman Congregation of Rites vigilantly investigates all aspects of the candidate’s life. In the case of Father Damien, the Congregation has doubtless already been obliged to consider old stories which gained fresh currency upon the death nearly five years ago of Father Damien’s zealous, self-sacrificing successor, Brother Joseph Dutton (TIME, April 6, 1931). Brother Joseph died at 87, untouched by leprosy. Why, some wondered, did Father Damien contract it? Was he unclean? Soon after Father Damien died a Honolulu Presbyterian missionary named C. M. Hyde wrote a colleague that, among other things, the leper priest “was not a pure man in his relations with women.” This statement, published in Australia, evoked from Presbyterian Robert Louis Stevenson a bitter rebuttal which may well be a deciding factor in the saintly cause of Father Damien. Stevenson had visited Molokai, had talked with Brother Joseph, had found the colony even with its improvements “a pitiful place to visit and a Hell to dwell in.” Flaming with indignation, Author Stevenson wrote Dr. Hyde:

“We are not all expected to be Damiens; a man may conceive his duty more narrowly, he may love his comforts better; none will cast a stone at him for that. But will a gentleman of your reverend profession allow me an example from the fields of gallantry? When two gentlemen compete for the favor of a lady, and the one succeeds and the other is rejected, and (as will sometimes happen) matter damaging to the successful rival’s credit reaches the ear of the defeated, it is held by plain men of no pretensions that his mouth is, in the circumstance, almost necessarily closed. Your church and Damien’s were in Hawaii upon a rivalry to do well: to help, to edify, to set Divine examples. You having (in one huge instance) failed, and Damien succeeded, I marvel it should not have occurred to you that you were doomed to silence; that when you had been outstripped in that high rivalry, and sat inglorious in the midst of your wellbeing, in your pleasant room—and Damien. crowned with glories and horrors, toiled and rotted in that pigsty of his under the cliff of Kalawao— you, the elect who would not, were the last man on earth to collect and propagate gossip on the volunteer who would and did. . . .

“Damien was coarse. It is very possible. You make us sorry for the lepers, who had only a coarse old peasant for their friend and father. . . . Damien was dirty. 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. Damien was headstrong. I believe you are right again; and I thank God for his strong head and heart. Damien was bigoted. I am not fond of bigots myself, because they are not fond of me. . . . Damien believed his own religion with the simplicity of … a child, as I would I could suppose that you do. . . . 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.”

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