Friday, April 15, 2011
April 15 -- Father Damien de Veuster
Hawaii probably doesn't seem like a bad place to be sent, no matter what business you're in. It might have seemed a little less inviting in the nineteenth century, but if you were going to be a Christian missionary somewhere, you could do worse than a Pacific island paradise. So Father Damien's decade on Maui seems as enviable as it is admirable.
But when British and American merchants persuaded the Hawaiian government (the USA did not annex the islands until 1898) to banish everyone with leprosy (Hansen's disease) to the Kalaupapa peninsula of Molokai, Damien chose to go with them. I've never been to Molokai but I am sure it is spectacular. Nonetheless, no matter how beautiful the climate, damn few people would voluntarily exile themselves to an ungoverned colony of terminally ill people. They were so isolated that ships delivering new exiles and supplies did not even bring them ashore -- they just sailed near and threw them overboard, letting the tide carry the people and things in.
There were about 800 lepers on Molokai when Damien got there. He helped establish some order so that the stronger would no longer abuse and exploit the weaker. He assisted with the development of gardens and irrigation so they would all eat better. He tended the sick and organized funerals for the dead.
In 1885, he contracted leprosy himself. He became an international celebrity and exploited the fame to raise awareness and support for the Molokai exiles. He died at age forty-nine on April 15, 1889.
Missionaries from rival Christian sects got really snarky about Father Damien after his death. Most notably, Rev. C. M. Hyde, a Honolulu Presbyterian, wrote a famous letter to Rev. H. B. Gage, railing against Damien for being a "coarse, dirty man" whose leprosy resulted from his own carelessness. The writer Robert Louis Stevenson, also a Presbyterian, wrote a lengthy and detailed rebuttal, concluding that Rev. Hyde's remarks were prompted by jealousy. Hyde's failure to assist these least of Christ's brothers were his own shortcoming, and he could not advance himself by pulling down Damien, who had answered the call. Stevenson concluded that Hyde would be remembered, if at all, for his shameful letter to Gage.
Mahatma Gandhi listed Father Damien as one of his inspirations. Can't do much better than that.
Posted by Tom Major at 6:15 AM