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Father Damien resurrected virtue and self-respect in his leper colony at Molokai

Posted in Historical articles, History, Missionaries, Religion, Saints on Monday, 16 September 2013

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This edited article about missionaries originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 401 published on 20 September 1969.

Father Damien, picture, image, illustration

Father Damien

It was a day of misery and heartache when, in the summer of 1870, police officials toured the Pacific islands of Hawaii, posting a sombre notice in each village centre: ALL LEPERS ARE REQUIRED TO REPORT THEMSELVES TO THE GOVERNMENT HEALTH AUTHORITIES . . . FOR INSPECTION AND FINAL BANISHMENT TO MOLOKAI ISLAND.

This order meant that many families would be split up, for sometimes only one person, the father or mother, had contracted the disease. One man, on learning that his wife would be taken from him, fled with her to a coastal stronghold, where he kept the police away with a rifle.

For a time no one dared approach the maddened husband, who shot at anyone on sight. Then a missionary priest called Father Damien went to reason with the couple. He persuaded the native to surrender his gun, and agreed that the man and wife should be allowed to go together to Molokai, to live and to die there.

But Damien was not satisfied with helping just the one stricken family. He wanted to comfort all the lepers, and so gained permission to go and live among the outcasts as their resident priest. He joined the leper colony on Molokai that summer, and immediately found that “vice reigned instead of virtue.”

Bereft of all human dignity, the doomed lepers lived in “defiance of divine as well as human laws.” A lesser man than Damien might have despaired of ever bringing the natives back to the ways of decency. But the priest, who was born in the Belgian village of Tremeloo in 1840, was a man of exceptional courage and humanity.

His first object on Molokai was to show the lepers that, unlike almost everyone else they met, he did not despise or fear them. He mixed freely with them, eating from their dishes and smoking tobacco from their pipes. Apart from putting an end to drunkenness and theft, he acted as the islanders’ doctor, grave-digger, coffin-maker, and funeral official.

Realizing that help must also come from outside, he went round Hawaii raising money for medical supplies, proper sanitation, lumber and building materials. Before his arrival on Molokai the lepers had lived in flimsy huts which were blown away by the winds which swept the island.

With new homes and a supply of running water, the lepers at last began to take an interest in themselves. They knew they could not be cured, but at least they could treat each other as human beings, and try to make their community as happy as circumstances allowed.

Encouraged by Father Damien, they accepted their fate more stoically than before. The priest was never too busy to spare a word of advice or sympathy. His sermons were always well-attended, and one Sunday in 1885 he shocked his congregation by addressing them not as “My brethren,” but as “We lepers.”

At the age of 45, after spending 15 years on Molokai, Damien himself had caught the disease. He knew that his days were numbered, and told his assistants: “I would like to be put by the side of my stout old tree where I rested so many nights before I had any other shelter.”

Four years later, in April, 1889, his request was sorrowfully complied with.

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