Father Damien of Molokai

Self Sacrifice Incarnate

Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai, by Gavan Daws.(1973) Honolulu:University of Hawaii Press. ISBN: 978-0-8248-0920-1. 293 pp. Paperback


Read about Father Damien of Molokai. Learn about leprosy, about medicine, and about life.

This book is a biography of a man, and history of the times. A man is born to a religious family and follows those footsteps to a life of religious service. In the attempt to reflect the life of Christ, Father Damien volunteers to replace his brother as a missionary to the Hawaiian Islands in the 1800s. He volunteers to be the priest for the leprosy colony on Kalawao, a segregated area on Molokai, initially believing this to be a temporary posting. Politics, his personal choice, and religious policy entwine to create an atmosphere where he stays… until his death from leprosy at 49 in 1889. During his stay this man worked hard and was described as, “God’s Athlete”. He tirelessly tended to the sick, acting as not only priest, but carpenter, stone mason, teacher, policeman and physician, dispensing the medications available at that time, and actually performing an amputation at one point. Thrust into the limelight by others, he became famous for his sacrifice at the colony, mobilizing charitable donations and indirectly inspiring world wide research into this disease. He was, ”the leper of the world”.

This humble man, described largely as a peasant, not intellectual in any way, firmly grasped the paradigm of his chosen religious world. He was taught and knew the right thing to do, and took his vows as a member of the Sacred Hearts Fathers. This sect believed in emulating the life of Christ. He felt this down to his very bones, leaving his family and comfortable cloistered life in Belgium for that of a segregated leprosy colony. He continued to help the people there, unconcerned with his own personal safety, not limiting his personal physical contact.

His simple exuberance in helping these people led him into trouble. He became famous personally for his sacrifice. Fame was something unexpected and largely unwelcome from a Catholic priest (at least from his superior’s view). He made many a hasty decision, for example marrying people right before one was to be segregated, and misappropriating funds as he saw fit (he used funds allocated to one church for rebuilding another, for example). He was a force to contend with politically, more so as his fame grew. During his time leprosy was the bane of the Hawaiian islands, the population more than decimated, and a political issue. As “the world’s leper”, he was involved. A monarchy fell, and political revolutions occurred during his stay.

Tension existed on many levels: the “haole” vs the “kanaka” (white vs hawaiian) way; a spiritual tension, his “life itself a mortification”; catholicism vs protestantism; his family tension, missing them, exhibiting years of extolling his brother to join him, then to stay away; a financial tension, attempting to manage the colony on 21 ⅓ cents a day per person. But perhaps the greatest tension was Damien’s own zeal and sacrifice, producing “a version of religious duty unpalatable to  those responsible for maintaining a prudent equilibrium…” (p 249)

This book could be implemented in many ways into a medical curriculum. This biography is also a history of an illness. It would be instructive on many levels, from the microbiology of “bacillus leprae”, to the clinical presentation, or sociologically, on the effects of segregation. This is a principle of managing an epidemic: here we see the real life consequences. More than all this however, this is an extreme example of personal sacrifice, of an ideal to which only few of us can aspire. In this book, the efforts of others to perform similarly are detailed. Damien’s own brother was unable to persist in this post for longer than a few months. Reading this account allows us to forgive ourselves our weaknesses and come to grips with our humanity.

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