|Australian actor David Wenham (Faramir, The Lord of the Rings trilogy)|
stars as Fr. Damien
One of the things I most deeply desire my children to read before they finish school is this wonderful and moving letter by Robert Louis Stevenson, written in 1890 in Sydney. It is an open letter in defense of Fr. Damien against accusations in a nasty letter written to a religious journal by Rev. Dr. Hyde in the year after Fr. Damien's death.
R.L. Stevenson says to Rev. Dr. Hyde,
You know enough, doubtless, of the process of canonisation to be aware that, a hundred years after the death of Damien, there will appear a man charged with the painful office of the “devil's advocate.”
Then, referring to Hyde as an unofficial “devil's advocate,” he continues,
After that noble brother of mine, and of all frail clay, shall have lain a century at rest, one shall accuse, one defend him. The circumstance is unusual that the devil's advocate should be a volunteer, should be a member of a sect immediately rival, and should make haste to take upon himself his ugly office ere the bones are cold; unusual, and of a taste which I shall leave my readers free to qualify; unusual, and to me inspiring. If I have at all learned the trade of using words to convey truth and to arouse emotion, you have at last furnished me with a subject. For it is in the interest of all mankind, and the cause of public decency in every quarter of the world, not only that Damien should be righted, but that you and your letter should be displayed at length, in their true colours, to the public eye.
He later points out that at least Hyde's letter offers the world the opportunity to discover what Fr. Damien was really like:
Damien has been too much depicted with a conventional halo and conventional features; so drawn by men who perhaps had not the eye to remark or the pen to express the individual; or who perhaps were only blinded and silenced by generous admiration, such as I partly envy for myself--such as you, if your soul were enlightened, would envy on your bended knees. It is the least defect of such a method of portraiture that it makes the path easy for the devil's advocate, and leaves the misuse of the slanderer a considerable field of truth. For the truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the enemy. The world, in your despite, may perhaps owe you something, if your letter be the means of substituting once for all a credible likeness for a wax abstraction. For, if that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage.
As prophesied, 120 years after his death, Fr. Damien of Molokai was indeed declared a Saint. Stevenson's letter is the best thing I have ever read on St. Damien.
In both the Latin Rite and the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, Damien is venerated as a saint. In the Anglican communion, as well as other denominations of Christianity, Damien is considered the spiritual patron for leprosy and outcasts. As he is the patron saint of the Diocese of Honolulu and of Hawaii, Father Damien Day is celebrated statewide on April 15.
Upon his beatification by Pope John Paul II in Rome on June 4, 1995, Blessed Damien was granted a memorial feast day, which is celebrated on May 10. Father Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday, October 11, 2009. The Catholic Encyclopedia calls him "the Apostle of the Lepers."
St. Damien was born, Jozef De Veuster, on 3rd January 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium. When he entered the missionary Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1860, he took the name Damien. At the age of 33 he went to the leper colony.
I dream of Hawai'i
Since moving to Texas, it has been a hope of mine to go to Hawai'i. My only reason is to visit the place where St. Damien worked with and for the lepers. He did so much to build and improve the small dwellings there for the lepers and was constantly building and repairing all that was needed. As a young man he had learned the skills he needed for this, showing us that nothing good we learn need ever be considered a waste of time. He complained about the lack of supplies pretty constantly and essentially nagged to death anyone and everyone he could to get what was needed for the settlements. He was a complete nuisance to them, rightly so, for the poor lepers had so little of what they needed and perhaps not even a source of clean drinking water on that hostile peninsula.
In 1865, out of fear of [Hansen's disease/leprosy], the Hawaiian Legislature passed the "Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy". This law quarantined the lepers of Hawaii, requiring the most serious cases to be moved to a settlement colony ofKalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokaʻi. Later the settlement of Kalaupapa was developed. Kalawao County, where the two villages are located, is separated from the rest of Molokaʻi by a steep mountain ridge. Even in the 21st century, the only land access is by a mule trail. From 1866 through 1969, a total of about 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula for medical quarantine.
In late1884, Fr. Damien realised he had Hansen's disease and he worked harder than ever. He was finally blessed with some permanent helpers, which had been his need and desire for so many years:
Conrardy took up pastoral duties; Cope organized a working hospital; Dutton attended to the construction and maintenance of the community's buildings; Sinnett nursed Damien in the last phases of illness. With an arm in a sling, a foot in bandages and his leg dragging, Damien knew death was near. He was bedridden on March 23, 1889, and on March 30 he made a general confession. Damien died of leprosy at 8:00 a.m. on April 15, 1889, at the age of 49.The next day, after Mass by Father Moellers at St. Philomena's, the whole settlement followed the funeral cortège to the cemetery. Damien was laid to rest under the same pandanus tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokaʻi.
St. Damien's remains were eventually taken back to Belgium and his major shrine is at Leuven. St. Damien of Molokai, pray for us.
Louise LaMotte is a friend from Light on Dark Water. Since she lived in Australia at the time we met online, I never thought we would meet in person. I was wrong.
If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.