Unless you are from Hawaii or a Catholic, you probably don’t know about Father Damien, a Belgian priest sent to Hawaii back in the days when Leprosy was considered very infectious, (with the stigma of shame since some considered it an STD) and those with it were quarrantined to a hell hole on the beautiful island of Molokai.

The people were placed on an isolated area of the island as a form of quarantine, to stop the spread of the disease, which back then had no treatment, but those who did so failed to see the gravity of the situation. For example, the water supply was far from the village, so hygiene was poor. And many were too sick to get and prepare the food that was supplied. People being people, some helped each other (even some non infected spouses went along) but alas too many just became savage, drinking and partying and stealing what they could.

Some of the lepers were Christian, so the bishop decided to send priests there on short rotations. But the first priest he sent was a stubborn hot tempered Belgian farmboy turned missionary with the religious name Damian. When Damian saw the horrors, he just decided to stay.

And therein lies the story.

Being a Catholic priest, the first thing he did was fix the building used for a chapel. He then started to bury the dead, making coffins. Cleanliness was impossible, so another job was to bring the water supply closer to the town. And then there was basic nursing and giving Mass and the sacraments.

Many of those there were bitter, and turned away from their God, be it the God of the Bible or the God of the islands. They were suspicious of an outsider. What won them over was that Damien accepted them, never showing disgust at their wound or odor.

Most people know only the “cleaned up” version of these things. But when I was a doctor, and we had a guy with a terrible wound, I asked one of our old sisters who had worked in a lepersorium thirty years earlier if it might be leprosy, and she smiled and said, no. It didn’t smell like Leprosy, she informed me, implying that the foul ulcer wasn’t as bad as those she had treated in the bad old days before Hansen’s disease was found to be treatable.

Because Father Damien lived with the people, on a low level of hygiene, he ended up catching and dying of leprosy. Those back in Honolulu who had guilty consciences about the lack of supplies at the colony were upset at the groundswell of honors to the dead priest. They had been on the wrong end of the priest’s bad temper about the lack of supplies, and now those who had admired Father Damien were implying the same thing.

So one nice clergyman wrote a letter saying that Damien had a rotten temper, was a bigot, (all true) and probably caught the disease (which many back then confused with Syphillis) from one of the lovely ladies (not true: Damien had to confess in public from a row boat to a priest who wouldn’t get off the ship delivering supplies. Any such sin would have become public knowledge and he would have been removed by the bishop).

The clergyman’s smear  probably would have ended the matter if a wandering tubercular British writer hadn’t come across it. The writer, better known as Robert Louis Stevenson, who had spent much time among island people instead of with the elite, wrote a letter that is a classic of irony, defending Damien and blasting the holier than thou types living in the comfort of Honolulu.

But the smear did cause a shadow over the good man’s name, which is why one news headline announced:

Father Damien cleared for sainthood

But the people of Hawaii have long considered Damien a saint, and even placed a statue of him in front of their  statehouse and another in the rotunda of the US Capitol. If one can be a saint by proclamation, Damien is already one, and the Vatican is only catching up on the paperwork.

Actually, although I have worked in two African countries, I have only diagnosed one case of leprosy. Nowadays, the disease is easily treatable, and one of my friends in Liberia ran the Leprosy clinics, traveling from village to village to give out medicines and make sure everyone was taking it correctly, and monitoring family members for signs of infection.

So Father Damien has long been considered the patron saint of those suffering from Hansen’s disease, which is the medical term for leprosy. But as leprosy disappears, he is now considered the patron saint of those suffering from HIV, a disease that similarly inspires fear and shunning in many countries.

The point is that the best missionaries are nothing like the cliches and jokes: The best ones are those who are down to earth and practical. Father Damien might have been a hot headed bigot, but he was there and did the dirty work. Sometimes God’s work is done better by a person with faults who tries hard than by a passive aggressive milquetoast who faints at the sight of blood.

So the story of Damien, bad temper and all, is a blessing to those of us who work with the sick, and an inspiration to those of us who can’t stand “religious” movies where everyone is sweety nicey and so delicate they wouldn’t harm a fly.

And speaking of movies, you might try renting the movie Molokai, which was given a 71% good rating from the film site Rotten Tomatoes.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes about human rights at Makaipablog.

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