On a dreary, wintry afternoon in San Francisco, the army transport ship Republic arrived from Honolulu at Fort Mason, just inside the entrance to the bay. The ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, which was still being built; it would be opened to traffic the following year. In the ship’s hold that day, Feb. 11, 1936, was the body of Joseph Damien de Veuster, known as Father Damien, the Leper Priest. At the request of King Leopold III, Damien’s remains were being taken back to his native Belgium. Pope Pius XI had notified the king that Damien was to be considered for sainthood in the church. The king had contacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking for his assistance in the move. Roosevelt, in turn, had the body lifted from its grave on the island of Molokai in what was then the U.S. Territory of Hawaii and, according to reports, “promptly ordered the troop ship to prepare to transport the body.” No one was thinking of Alcatraz.
The events that followed were chronicled, almost day by day, in the San Francisco newspapers.
Apostle to the Lepers
Damien was born in Tremeloo, Belgium, in 1840. While the Civil War raged in the United States, he arrived in the Kingdom of Hawaii as a 24-year-old missionary priest. In 1868, four years after Damien’s arrival, the King of Hawaii ordered all leprosy victims quarantined and expelled them to an isolated 800-acre tract on Molokai known as Kalaupapa. As was widely known within the island kingdom, the settlement had fallen into civil disarray because of a shortage of supplies, food and medical treatment. Yet in 1873, Father Damien volunteered to spiritually serve the leprosy patients at the colony. He is credited with organizing the populace into a community—overseeing and participating in the construction of houses, a hospital and a church. He publicized the terrible plight of the victims torn from their homes and families, and his efforts received worldwide recognition. As a result, he garnered large donations of money and supplies, which enhanced the living conditions at the colony. Father Damien ministered to the lepers for 12 years before he contracted and, four years later, succumbed to the disease. He died at the Kalaupapa settlement in 1889 at the age of 49.
Nearly half a century later, at Fort Mason, the remains of the holy man were taken from the ship in a procession of a size appropriate for a deceased ambassador. The cortege that wound its way through San Francisco was composed of thousands of Catholic clergymen; the Belgian consul general and U.S. federal, state and city officials; Belgian World War I veterans living in San Francisco; ordinary citizens; and a full military honor guard. Damien’s body lay in state at St. Mary’s Cathedral under a 24-hour military guard provided at Roosevelt’s direction. The public was invited to pay their respects to the hero-priest in a series of religious rites performed during Damien’s five-day stay in the city, including Masses and eulogies by the local archbishop, John J. Mitty, and other high-ranking members of the clergy.
Rioting on Alcatraz
With the ship safely docked and its precious cargo unloaded, the crew went on shore leave. As was the custom, the ship’s laundry was taken to the nearest federal prison to be cleaned—Alcatraz. But there was a hitch: the prison was in lockdown mode. A riot had erupted there a few days earlier, caused by a flubbed surgery that had left a prisoner dead.
That prisoner, Jack Allen, was known to prison medical authorities as a “faker.” He often “appeared in sick lines when he apparently was not ill.” On Feb. 7 Allen reported to the hospital complaining of painful stomach symptoms. The physician on duty, Dr. Jess Jacobsen, aware of Allen’s history of hypochondria, initially ignored his complaints. When Jacobsen finally performed an operation, however, he discovered that a stomach ulcer had ruptured. Subsequently, Allen died.
According to news reports, the physician became “the target of catcalls” by the inmates. The catcalls led to a prison riot, which the local press sensationalized. One report called the incident the “Mad Mutiny” and another the “Revolt on the Rock.” The melee forced the warden to order a lockdown. Compounding the seething unrest were the extraordinary precautions taken to protect Al (Scarface) Capone and George (Machine Gun) Kelly, both of them prisoners who had refused to participate in the riot. The mutineers had “branded them as ‘rats’ for their refusal to join in the uprising.”
The leaders of the uprising were Ludwig (Dutch) Schmidt and Norman (the Fox) Whitaker. Schmidt was a notorious mail-truck robber, whom federal authorities had transferred to Alcatraz after he had escaped from a federal prison in Atlanta. In one internal report, the Federal Bureau of Investigation noted Schmidt was “a leader and dangerous criminal and a dangerous influence” on other prisoners. Whitaker was an international chess master and notorious thief who had been implicated in the Charles Lindbergh kidnapping case and was serving a 15-year sentence. Schmidt and Whitaker were being held “in solitary confinement in the prison dungeon,” when 65 other prisoners, who had participated in the riot, were also confined to their cells.
As a result, the prison industries were “hampered by the number of men confined to their cells.” Prison officials reported that the handling of the “large shipment of laundry from the army transport Republic,” just in from Honolulu, was expected to be delayed. The Republic was on a tight schedule en route to the Panama Canal, where Father Damien’s body was to be transferred to the Belgian ship Mercator, which would take his venerated remains on to the port of Antwerp.
The problem was resolved when the warden of Alcatraz announced the transfer of Dr. Jacobsen to a Marine hospital in Seattle; this “relieved the strained conditions” among the prison population. Still, the laundry delivery was nearly 12 hours late, forcing a delay of the Republic’s scheduled departure. With Damien’s casket again on board, the ship’s captain made up the lost time during the voyage by sailing at full steam. Then authorities expedited the ship’s passage through the Panama Canal, advancing her to the head of the line of waiting ships. The casket containing the leper martyr’s body was transferred on schedule to the Mercator at Colon, Panama Canal Zone.
Finally at Rest
Father Damien was finally buried in Belgium on May 6, 1936. When he was laid to rest, one newspaper speculated that his deeds in Hawaii caring for the lepers might lead eventually to his “being enshrined in sainthood.” Those words were prescient.
The Hawaiian people, meanwhile, had considered the priest as one of their own. When Damien’s body was removed from Hawaii for the long trek to Belgium, it took place amid the “wails and lamentations” of the Hawaiian people. Their feelings were finally addressed in 1995, when Pope John Paul II presented the bones of Damien’s right hand to a delegation of Hawaiians. The relic was returned to Damien’s original burial place on Molokai.
Blessed Damien of Molokai will be canonized a saint on Oct. 11, 2009.