Between 1866 and 1873, seven hundred and ninety-seven lepers arrived on Molokai. Almost half of them died. Public indignation mounted, and the Board of Health sought to improve conditions. In April of 1873, Walter Gibson, a politician at the time, wrote a newspaper article that made a bold request. It called for a noble Christian priest, preacher, or Sister who would sacrifice their own life to console the lepers on Molokai. There were several men in Hawaii who were willing to respond, and one of them was Father Damien, a charitable Catholic priest with the Sacred Hearts order.
It may have been presentiment or prophecy, but Father Damien had known for some time that he would eventually go to Molokai. When Father Damien arrived on Molokai, it was in a state of disarray. Sacred Hearts had previously built a tiny chapel, dedicated to St. Philomena, but attendance was scarce. There was no government on the island, and the lepers’ days were filled with drinking, crime, and a general sense of hopelessness. Father Damien chose to rectify this in many ways. During the first weeks upon arrival, Father Damien took normal precautions to avoid contagion.
He settled comfortably under a tree outside of the tiny chapel, and a large rock on the side of the tree served as his dinner table. But if Damien protected his body from the disease, there was nothing he could do to protect his eyes or ears from the shock of the contact with the lepers. Gathering his courage, he began to approach the lepers one by one. He embraced them, dined with them, and he cleaned and bandaged their wounds. On his first visit to a young girl, he found that worms had eaten at one whole side of her body.
Now this must have been a shock to the lepers, who in the past had only seen people who had been sent by the Department of Health. These previous doctors were so afraid of contagion that they resorted to looking at their patient’s sores by lifting the bandages with a cane. At another point, a doctor left medicine on a table where the lepers could get it, insuring that he would not even have to been in the same room with them. Having someone like Father Damien who was willing to get close to them, and who spoke the Hawaiian language, began to give the lepers hope.
Not necessarily hope that they would live, but hope that their lives, however short, would have some meaning. With the help of his patients, Father Damien built houses, constructed a water system, and planted trees. He also organized schools, bands and choirs. He provided medical care for the living, and buried the dead. He even expanded the tiny chapel on the island. He persistently badgered the Hawaiian government and his church for more resources, which resulted in a heightened awareness of the disease and the plight of its victims.
One day in December of 1884, while soaking his feet in extremely hot water, Father Damien experienced no sensation to heat or pain. He knew at this point that he had leprosy. He had lived on Molokai for twelve years when this was confirmed. Although the disease is not highly contagious, Damien had not been careful about hygiene. He did nothing to separate himself from the lepers. He ate with them, shared his pipe, and did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores. Despite his many contributions, the Sacred Hearts Fathers were reluctant to help Father Damien in the end.
He asked to come to Honolulu, so that another priest might hear his confessions, but his Father Superior forbade it. In the end, he relented, but insisted that if Damien must come to Honolulu, that he stay at the Franciscan Sisters’ leper hospital. He was not allowed to leave his room for the duration of his stay, which was one week. He spoke of his rejection by his own as the greatest suffering he had ever endured in his life. When Father Damien returned to Molokai, he was utterly alone.
He continually begged his superiors for an assistant, not only to help him in the ever-mounting work, but also to provide spiritual comfort for him. They were still reluctant to help, as two other Sacred Hearts brothers had already contracted leprosy from their time on the island. As death approached, Father Damien engaged in a flurry of activity. He continued to recite the Breviary as best he could as his eyes failed, and the disease invaded his windpipe, keeping him from sleeping for more than an hour or two at night. He was forty-nine years old when he died on April fifteenth, 1889.
Shortly before his death, he wrote in a letter to his brother, I am gently going to my grave. It is the will of God, and I thank Him very much for letting me die of the same disease and in the same way as my lepers. I am very satisfied and very happy (Father Damien par. 8). I think that I find Father Damien so interesting because of his selflessness and his devotion to his religion. He knew that in order to show the people of Molokai the joys of Catholicism, he would have to completely immerse himself in their lives. By doing so, he knew that he would ultimately die.
Yet despite knowing this, he still chose to forge ahead and share what he could with the people. It shows great selflessness and a strong faith in religion, either of which quality I would be happy to possess. I personally don’t know if I would have been able to give so much of myself. And in the end, when his peers would not even comfort him, he continued to do what he could to help the people. It would have different if he hadn’t known that he would have to die. But he did, and still chose to go. Even when death was upon him, he worked tirelessly until he no longer had the strength. To me, that is amazing.