Damien of Molekai

      Some saint's lives speak to us more tellingly--for whatever reason--than others. I have always had a strong devotion to Damien of Molekai. Thinking about him, on his feast day, reminds me of two episodes. The only time I have ever encountered lepers was forty years ago. I was in Japan giving conferences for Air Force chaplains. One of the chaplains took me with him to a leper colony in the north of the great island. I remember seeing many disfigured people ( with gnarled, distorted faces and mere stumps for their limbs). It was a very closed but amazingly warm community which welcomed us. I recall much joy and lot of laughter. Most of these Japanese lepers had become Catholic since they had found a kind of embracing acceptance from the priests and nuns not found elsewhere from their fellow countrymen who tended to shun them.

     At that time, there were two leprosaria in Japan: one in the north, one in the south. All the people in this northern leper colony came originally from the south. Concomitantly, all those in the south colony came from the north. Because of the disgrace connected with the disease, lepers were geographically removed from the possibility of almost any contact with family, fellow villagers, friends. I remember one young woman in the colony. I first spied her from her left profile. She had poignant and stunning beauty. Initially, I wondered why she was there, Then, she turned her head and I gained sight of her right profile--sagging and with the tell-tale signs of deteriorating flesh. I remember thinking of that Zen reminder that beauty is most beautiful, just as it is decaying or, like a flower, falling to the ground.


     I have twice lived for a period in Leuven, Belgium where Damien's body is buried. When I first visited, in 1985, the church were his body lies, Damien was not yet beatified. Church law dictated that non-beatified bodies were not to be placed in above-ground catafalques. But the Flemish faithful knew, in their bones and devotional life, long before his beatification in 1995 ( Damien was canonized by Benedict XVI in 2009) that Damien was a saint, so they laid his body anyway--against the canonical restrictions-- above ground. In the chapel below the main church of the Sacred Heart ( Picpus) fathers, I would often pray and go to touch the catafalque.

     As a young man, Damien was not, at first, considered proper material for ordination. By dint of hard work and mastering his Latin, he was ordained. Throughout his studies, Damien had prayed--as so many missionaries over the years have-- to Saint Francis Xavier. Because his brother was too ill to be sent, Damien took his place as a missionary to the Kingdom of Hawaii. At a time when wholesale diseases were descending on the island from visiting sailors ( tuberculosis, syphilis etc.), an outbreak of leprosy occurred. The Hawaiian king had the lepers quarantined on Molekai. The bishop, in search of volunteers to go to the leper colony as a priest, sent Damien. He stayed and worked there for sixteen years. Not only did he build a church, a clinic, orphanages, Damien acted as a kind of undertaker. He started a child's choir and a band. He helped the lepers build suitable housing. In his early years, Damien wrote to his brother back in Belgium: " I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ". Eventually, Damien himself contracted leprosy and could turn to his congregation with that famous address: " we lepers".

        Damien's feats and heroism were spread abroad by a Princess of the Kingdom who had visited Molekai. He was attacked, however, by several Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries ( who, one supposes, were jealous of Damien's growing fame and were propelled by their instinctive anti-Catholicism). The most famous attack came from a Presbyterian minister, C.M. Hyde, who accused Damien of being a plain, course, dirty man whose leprosy had been contracted out of carelessness. Robert Louis Stephenson took it upon himself to visit Molekai for eight days. He kept a careful diarity of his stay and became impressed by the heroic charity, sanctity and simplicity of Damien.

      Stepphenson publicly and famously rebuked Hyde: " But, sir, when we have failed and another has succeeded, when we have stood by and another has stepped in, when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted and consoles the dying and is himself afflicted in his turn and dies upon the field of honor, the battle cannot be retrieved by your unhappy irritation. It is a lost battle. One thing remained to you in your defeat: some rags of common honor and those you have made haste to cast away". Stephenson even predicted eventual sainthood for Damien.

         Damien, an obscure saint of service, now has a statue dedicted to him representing Hawaii, in the National Hall of Statuary in Washington, D.C. Gandhi once said that the fame and story of Damien inspired him to take up the cause of the outcastes. In my life, I have only fervently prayed for the canonization of four people: Damien; Mary McKillop of Australia ( whose shrine and tomb I visited several times in North Sydney in 2005 and 2007. I was able to attend her canonization in October, 2010); John Henry Newman and Dorothy Day. Damien's message to us is caught in some words of Dorothy Day. Day once said that we Christians  should" live a life so mysterious that the only adequate explanation for it is the presence of a living, loving God." Damien led such a life. I look forward to visiting his grave again this coming October when I am in Leuven for a conference at the University of Louvain.


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david power
7 years 10 months ago
Damien was an amazing Saint.
A true ballbreaker in the Pauline tradition.
He was smelly and not above reproach where the ladies
were concerned.He was impetuous and not in the least  orderly.
I feel a halo coming on....
But it was a Protestant writer called Robert Loius Stevenson who gave the fantastic
defense of Damien.I really hope that America will someday dedicate an article to this letter alone.It is truly worth a patient read and it shows us that sanctity is more than just appearance.Often the contrary.


I will need Shakespeare to write my defense  ......
david power
7 years 10 months ago
It is late over here in Italy and I am off to sleep soon.
The Saints as the best Theology? I agree but with a lot of caution.
When I was a child in Ireland we read the story of Fr Damien but it was sanitized.
Quite rightly.
But later I read the truth.In Ireland everybody knows the name of Fr Damien.
. When the Saints come without warts we have to send them back.  
Hagiography is the greatest work of the devil,I am convinced.
We are all dependent on others to receive Jesus.I received the Lord from a Priest called  Fr Culinan .
Fr Culinan always put Jesus first.He never spoke about morality,had no interest in politics and would not know what to do at one of these big occasions that the Church has become addicted to celebrating every two weeks.He only wanted people to know Jesus. He never entered into questions about doctrine but just kept repeating with great humility the name of Jesus and showed us how great the lord was.No media persuasion or infallible pronouncments for him just "Jesus cares for you". Never a protaginist but filled with a quite wisdom ,the knowledge of the Lord Jesus.The Church revels in actors and theologians and crowds.Saints are a cause of idolatry and ostentation.
The Lord revels in His saints like Fr Hardon and Fr Culinan. Their hearts are open to him.  
Juan Lino
7 years 10 months ago
Ignatius Press recently published a book on St. Damien - if one hasn't read it, I strongly recommend it.
mary margaret kujawa
7 years 10 months ago
what a totally giving man!!! he could have chosen an easy life but he served in the most feared diseaserd place among abject circumstance. teaches us today how to really live in sering others for jesus. what a superman spiritually!!!!! those who wanted to damage such a great man deserve to suffer in isolation forever but 4 the mercy of god they would.  thank you for telling us all about father damien. his feast day today may 10 is also the 1st anniversary of my dear 1st born son jimmy patrick who gave away almost all he earned to street people ever since he was a young teen. his heart too was so big!!!
mary margaret kujawa
7 years 10 months ago
my son jimmy patrick who died age 37 one year ago today is in the kingdom of jesus christ and i am sure he hangs out with father damien!
Leo Zanchettin
7 years 10 months ago
Thanks, John, for this reflection. I too have a special attraction to Damien. In fact, my youngest child, Mark Damien, is named in his honor. To mark his canonization in 2009, I asked J. Peter Nixon (from the Commonweal blog) to write about Damien for The Word Among Us. He did a fine job capturing Damien's personality and charism. Here's a link, for anyone who is interested: http://wau.org/resources/article/re_gods_athlete/.

The Stephenson quote, by the way, is priceless!
7 years 10 months ago
It doesn't really matter, but, was there a reason my comment was deleted? Is seemed fairly innocuous and benign.  Was there something subversive or inappropriate that I missed ?
Tom Cashman
7 years 10 months ago
Likewise, my comment lauding this wonderful saint was deleted. With Maria, it largely doen't matter but i'm curious.
7 years 10 months ago

If anyone is in Hawaii it is possible to visit the leper colony at Kalaupapa.  It is one of the prettiest places you will ever see.  My wife and I took the mule trip down the cliffs and she claims it is one of the five best days of her life.  You can also fly in from Honolulu.  Only about a dozen still live there as most have died or left.
You can see the church that Father Damien built and the village where they lived.  I believe he was the only person to get leprosy from the people there and one can learn a lot about what life was like for those who were sentenced there.  Yes, they were sentenced there as they were literally treated as lepers and forced to live there.  There is no safe landing for a boat there in certain times of the year and the captain of the boat that brought lepers in would push them over board to make there way in.  Some drowned in the process.

So I highly recommend it for anyone who is planning to be in Hawaii at some time in the future to experience the beauty of the place and hear the stories.  If you are healthy enough, take the mule ride.  That is an experience in itself.


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