FATHER DAMIEN AND THE LEPERS
by Stan Griffin
During the 18th Century, groups of people all over the world became shunned, reviled, feared, and hated for no reason other than their bad luck in contracting a particularly frightening illness. Most of these men, women, and children were sent to isolated "camps" where they could have no contact with healthy persons. It was the medical opinion of the time that the only way to limit the spread of this disease was to keep infected individuals isolated for the rest of their lives.
The victims of this malady were driven out of their homes and out of their towns. Their lives were uprooted; they became outcasts.
Once these unfortunates were "put away," no one seemed to care about them any more. They had been discarded by society. They were ignored; and for a long time, help was practically non-existent.
The name of this disease is leprosy. Victims were called "lepers," and their camps became "leper colonies" or "leprosariums." They were feared because it was thought that leprosy was extremely contagious and could be passed along easily. Today we know better.
Leprosy is NOT highly infectious, it is slow to spread, and it is not inherited. The effects are minimal, provided it is discovered and treated early enough.
Leprosy was mentioned in the Bible. Ancient Egyptians called it "death before death." It was approximately 400 B.C. when Persian troops invading Greece brought it into Europe. From there it spread through the Mediterranean area and eventually to the rest of the continent. An Indian physician named Sushruta was the first to write down an accurate description of leprosy; this was about 300 A.D. During the A.D. 1100s and 1200s, there was a terrible epidemic in western Europe. The disease gradually disappeared for a time as living conditions and nutrition improved.
Leprosy is also referred to as "Hansen's Disease," named for a Norwegian doctor who first isolated bacilli of the illness (1874). It wasn't until the 1940s that a wonder drug (Dapsone) was found to alleviate suffering. To be effective, however, the medication had to be taken on a strict schedule for a long period of time. Many patients did not continue with treatment, and so the disease returned. More recently, drugs such as Clofazimine and Rifampicin produced positive results although they also had to be strictly controlled by physicians.
The disease still exists today, mostly in poor countries where living conditions make discovery and treatment difficult. The public continues to view its victims with uneasiness and disquiet. Also, the fear that existed 100 years ago has not completely disappeared.
Hawaii is a chain of islands in the northern Pacific Ocean. European explorers began arriving there in the 1780s, and they were impressed by the natural beauty of the area. The explorers and the settlers who followed brought with them sicknesses like measles and the common cold, deadly to thousands of native Hawaiians. According to some observers the Chinese, coming to work in the islands (around 1830), brought the most feared disease of all: leprosy. The Hawaiians called it "Ma'i Pake"--the Chinese Disease. (There is no positive proof that immigrants from only one country are to blame completely for the emergence of leprosy in Hawaii.)
In 1865 the Hawaiian government became frightened by the spread of leprosy. They created a leper colony on the island of Molokai to be located on an isolated peninsula called Kalaupapa. This peninsula is cut off from the other side of the island by impassable cliffs.
People from all over Hawaii were loaded on boats and taken to Kalaupapa. They were left there with nothing more than some seeds and tools, and hastily-built huts of branches, leaves, and grass. A rickety structure was given the name of "hospital," but it had no beds or medicines. And there were no doctors at all.
Conditions at Kalaupapa were atrocious. People died more often of starvation than their ailment because they were unable to use the tools and plant the seeds. Leprosy frequently caused all loss of feeling in hands or feet and weakened muscles (sometimes with paralysis and blindness). Feeling desperation and frustration, many victims ran wild: fighting, drinking, gambling. Soldiers sent to restore order were afraid to get close to the lepers. Governmental supervisors, assigned to take charge there, stayed only a few weeks before they fled in fear.
The people on Kalaupapa were convinced no one cared about them. Newcomers to the peninsula were told: "Aole kanawai ma keia wahi." (In this place, there is no law.)
The Roman Catholic Church sent missionaries to Hawaii in 1827. Seven years earlier, Protestant missionaries had arrived. Through the next 15 years, the Catholics had to fight efforts of Protestant natives to force them out of Hawaii. They finally received religious freedom around 1840.
The Catholic Church actively recruited priests and nuns to work in Hawaii. In 1861 a Bishop came to Paris, France and issued an urgent appeal for more missionaries. While he was there, he spoke to seminary students working to become priests. On Easter Sunday he said a Pontifical Mass in the chapel. In that service he repeated his desire to find volunteers to accompany him to Hawaii.
The Bishop tried to encourage enlistments by describing the beauty and glamour of the tropic areas and coral islands, swaying palms, and scented flowers. He told prospects that Hawaii was a "great field for future labor." They needed to correct the evil influences of the first white men who spoiled the happiness of the natives and brought disease, immorality, and greed.
In the audience at the Easter Mass was a Belgian seminary student named Joseph de Veuster. He became convinced that Hawaii was the place where he was meant to spend his life. Unfortunately, he was not yet ordained; and the Bishop was looking for full-fledged priests. When the group of volunteers was chosen, Joseph's name was not on the list.
Another's bad luck became his good luck. One of those picked to go was Father Pamphile, Joseph's brother. When he became ill and was too sick to travel, Joseph made a rather outrageous appeal directly to the Superior-General: allow
him to replace his brother. Surprisingly, he was accepted.
Joseph had been born in 1840 in Tremeloo, Belgium. He was 18 years old when he decided that he wanted to become a priest, joining the Congregation of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (also called the Picpus Fathers). After a year, during which he learned the required Latin language, he was officially accepted as a candidate for the priesthood.
When the time came to adopt a new name as was the custom, Joseph chose "Damien." The original Damien was a physician who spent his life in the service of others. He became a martyr early in the 4th Century.
In November of 1863 the new recruits boarded a ship and sailed for the islands, arriving in March of the following year. Following two months of study (including learning the native language Kanaka), he became Father Joseph Damien de Veuster.
His first assignment was a post on the island of Hawaii, the largest and most easterly of the archipelago. His native name was "Kamiano." For the next nine years Damien spent his time among the Hawaiians, preaching to them and helping to improve their standard of living.
While engaged in his work there, Damien watched as government officials rounded up members of his parish who were ill with leprosy and transported them to the Molokai colony. Damien even observed a ship loaded with lepers leave from Honolulu harbor, headed for Kalaupapa.
Soon Father Damien made a formal request that he be assigned to help out at the Molokai leper colony. He believed that human beings, no matter what their affiliation, should never be cast aside.
The colony on Kalaupapa peninsula had been in existence for eight years when Damien arrived. The date was May 11, 1873.
At that time there was a population of 600. Most of the people were dirty and disfigured. Many had hands or feet that were only stumps. A lot of them looked like ghosts. Surprisingly, there were some who scarcely had any signs of the disease. Father Damien was the only healthy person on the peninsula. This made him both spiritual and physical "caregiver." For the next 16 years, he lived like his parishoners, ate like them, and claimed no privileges because he was white and educated.
During his first year at Kalaupapa he performed such duties as chasing drunks with a stick, smashing idols, rescuing orphans who had been kidnapped, repairing the hospital and the church (he later obtained a bell for it), encouraging the lepers to start gardens (both for food and to improve appearances with flowers), and cleaning and bandaging wounds. Each day he would try to visit all of the residents to find out how they were doing. Of course, he conducted church services. In his sermons, he frequently referred to " ... we lepers ..."
Damien saw to it that each victim who died was buried in a proper coffin and given a funeral. (During the first six years, there were 1,600 of these.) He made sure that the graves were dug deep enough to be safe from wild animals.
Father Damien was constantly requesting more supplies to improve the standard of living in the colony. He wrote regularly to the government in Honolulu pleading (and even demanding) such assistance. He also sent many letters to his Church superiors.
Stories in Oahu and Hawaii newspapers resulted in public donations. Damien traveled away from the colony to collect them in person and argue personally for more. He made several trips of this nature and was disappointed at the attitude of the Church. The fear of leprosy caused officials to isolate him in a room at a monastery and to deny him permission to celebrate Mass.
The huts in which the population of Kalaupapa lived were rundown, dirty, and foul-smelling. Damien tried to do something about this situation, but it was ultimately a storm that helped improve conditions. Molokai was struck by a typhoon in 1874, and all of the huts were completely destroyed. The Church set a ship with timber and nails, and Damien supervised the building of 300 huts, much more livable than the originals.
In 1875 Bishop Maigret came to Kalupapa. He praised Damien's work. That same year an American (the Chief Medical Officer of Brooklyn Hospital) visited the colony. He told Father Damien that his settlement was "by far the best he had ever seen."
Princess-Regent Liliuokalani, sister of the Hawaiian king, visited Kalaupapa in 1881. She was very impressed; and when she returned home, she sent many things the settlement needed. She also bestowed on Damien the Royal Order of Kalakaua. Later that same year she made a return trip, bringing Queen Kapiolani with her.
Father Damien gained a reputation as being argumentative, overly persistent, obstinate, quick-tempered, and a difficult person for superiors and co-workers alike. (This side of him never surfaced when he was working with the victims of leprosy, however.) In 1878 and again in 1882 priests were sent to help him. Neither stayed for very long; they both quarreled with Damien.
He was also described as disorganized when it came to keeping track of funds. He was once reprimanded for not consulting anyone before he spent donated money. Whenever he made such a mistake or angered Church officials in other ways, Father Damien always apologized and promised to do better.
Some of this criticism was undoubtedly due to jealousy among fellow churchmen. Some stated that Damien was losing sight of his objectives and trying to get publicity for himself.
It was 1882 when the first symptoms of leprosy appeared on Father Damien. His feet became painful and hot, and small yellow spots could be seen on his back. They faded for a while. Three years later he experienced numbness in his feet.
An American named Joseph Dutton arrived in 1886. He was a Civil War veteran and a Trappist monk. He told Father Damien that he would stay for as long as he was needed. As it turned out, he was there for over 40 years. (In fact, he died there.) Dutton became Damien's friend as well as his assistant.
In 1887 a Church of England vicar in London collected money for Father Damien. When his contribution arrived, it was twice the amount he had promised. Damien had frequently been told that Protestants were enemies of the Roman Catholic Church, but this experience showed him that kindness was not limited to his church.
By the next year, Father Damien's leprosy symptoms had returned. His heart, his vision, and his voice were gradually failing. His skin was becoming horribly ulcerated. His nose, ears, and eyebrows were also affected. Coming at an opportune time was a young priest named Lambert Conrady and a group of Franciscan Sisters. The nuns worked in a newly built home for girls.
Although his health was rapidly failing, Father Damien continued to work diligently for as long as his strength held out. During the last months of his life, he spent a lot of time helping to build a new church.
Finally the disease was too much for Damien. He was forced to take to his bed. On April 15, 1889 at the age of 49, Father Damien died, quietly and gently. He was buried under the same tree where he had slept on his first night at Kalaupapa. A Hawaiian newspaper stated: "... We care not what this man's theology may be, he is surely a Christian hero..."
Since 1980, the area where Father Damien worked with the lepers has been the "Kalaupapa National Historic Site."
The year after Damien's death, a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Charles C. McEwen Hyde of Honolulu, wrote a letter to a friend in Australia. The friend, the Rev. H. B. Gage, had written Hyde for information about Father Damien. Gage sent the letter to the editor of the "Sydney Presbyterian"--he published it!
The letter was cruel, very critical of Father Damien personally, and contained (among others) the following remarks:
" ... The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted ..." and " ...the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness..."
One man who read Hyde's letter was the world-famous poet and author of "Treasure Island": Robert Louis Stevenson. He had visited Molokai a few years after Damien's death, and he had seen the results of his work. He was so angry about what Hyde had written that he composed a letter himself. Stevenson's letter was mailed to the press; it, too, was published and was circulated widely. His defense of Damien (he destroyed EVERY POINT which Hyde had included) helped the world to know and admire this remarkable priest.
In 1936 Damien's body was returned to Belgium for a state funeral. He was buried in a crypt of St. Joseph's chapel, Louvain, Belgium. It wasn't very long before the Roman Catholic Church began the long process which precedes a declaration of sainthood.
Hawaii nominated Father Damien for a place in the National Statuary Hall, U. S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. His statue was placed there in 1969, where it stands today. Each of the 50 states have sent two statues of people who were "pioneers, political and religious leaders, and other outstanding citizens ... worthy of ... national commemoration..."
Twelve years later Pope Paul VI named Father Damien as "venerable," another step on the road to sainthood. During the summer of 1995, Damien was "beatified" by Pope John Paul II. This is the final act before the Church's declaration that a man or woman was truly a saint.
You might also enjoy these stories by Stan Griffin:
Alexander Fleming and Penicillin
Norman Rockwell : "The People's Artist"