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Posted on: Saturday, January 20, 2001

Book Review
The Father Damien Story

By Ann M. Sato
Special to The Advertiser

"LEPER PRIEST OF MOLOKAI" by Richard Stewart, University of Hawaii Press, hardback, $49; paper, $24.95.

Father Damien de Veuster has been the subject of dozens of books in the more than 100 years since his death on Molokai of Hansen’s disease.

These have ranged from a number of biographies authorized by the Roman Catholic church to the sensationalized accounts published in the United States and Europe immediately after his death, from more contemporary works such as Gavan Daws’ authoritative "Holy Man" to the powerful historical novel "Molokai" by Islander O.A. Bushell.

So why another?

That was the question on my mind as I sat down to read "Leper Priest of Molokai," released last month by the University of Hawaii Press (which also published Daws’ and Bushnell’s books). It’s a hefty tome even in paperback, written by Dr. Richard Stewart, a semi-retired professor of medicine from Wisconsin, a writer fascinated by the influence of medicine in the lives of famous people.

Having been raised Roman Catholic, I had been reading and hearing about Father Damien since I was a child in parochial school. The basic facts of his life were very familiar to me. Further, it seemed to me that Daws and Bushnell, in their different ways, had done as fine a job as anyone could with this much-revisited subject.

And, of course, these two are superior writers. But Stewart’s meticulously footnoted book surprised me.

He surprised me with revelations that were new (to me, at least), though it was sometimes difficult to know what to believe, given the amount of conflicting material from eyewitnesses, and the frustrating lack of comment by Damien himself on some key issues.

New to me was the contention that Damien, the least imaginative of men, had a vision as he left his first pastoral assignment on the Big Island, heading to a meeting with his bishop, that he would never return. And he did not.

Also little known, I think, is how, before the government was forced to crack down, well-to-do and well-connected Hansen’s disease patients were able to bribe their way out of incarceration at Kalaupapa. The most famous example is Queen Emma’s cousin, Kaeo, who was falsely declared "clean" and spirited off the island in 1880.

Supporting cast

Most interestingly, Stewart surprised me with the things he discloses not only about Damien, but about the people around him.

Larger-than-life figures such as Damien tend to cast a shadow as wide as an eclipse. For example, every account of Damien’s life mentions his partners at Kalaupapa, Brother Joseph (Ira Barnes) Dutton and Mother Marianne Cope (herself now being promoted for sainthood), but these two generally have been treated as supporting characters only.

Furthermore, previous biographies have often been flawed by the baggage of sainthood, the determination of those behind the project to paint Damien as an unmitigated hero (a tricky task, because Damien was the most human — and therefore, flawed — of men).

But this book gives almost as much attention to the key people around Damien as to the man himself and this proved interesting. Stewart tells, for example, of a Protestant physician on the Big Island who was Damien’s medical mentor. He offers mini-biographies of all the people who worked with (or against) Damien. And, in an afterword that was one of the things I appreciated most about the book, he tells what happened to them after Damien died.

This attention to others in no way detracts from Damien’s heroism, but it greatly deepens his humanity. How rare for a man of his era and religious conviction, for example, to work alongside someone (Bro. Dutton) with a checkered history of alcoholism and divorce and to do so without probing for details, and without judgment. Stewart writes that Damien only found out about Dutton’s past because he began to urge the brother to become a priest, forcing Dutton to admit that he was divorced (divorced persons are not eligible for the Catholic priesthood). If Stewart’s account is accurate, Damien felt only remorse for having brought up a painful subject, and never touched on the subject again.

Soft edges

Altogether, Stewart’s work tends to reveal a softer-edged Damien than we meet in other accounts — a gentle and sensitive, if socially inept, man. The rough edges and the famous temper are here, but so are some enduring relationships that argue that Damien could be a good friend and so is evidence of an appealing humility (for example, a letter in which Damien asks pardon of his brother, Pamphile, for having criticized him).

After his death, Damien’s accomplishments were disputed by a Protestant clergyman in Honolulu, the Rev. Charles E. Hyde, who also charged Damien with sexual impropriety. All this has been aired before, and soundly refuted. But Stewart reveals that Damien did struggle with sexual temptation, especially in his early years, when he worked alone on the Big Island.


This lack of understanding on the part of those around him is a central theme of the book. Even those who lauded Damien for his efforts repeatedly criticized him for putting his life in danger by not taking even the most basic precautions to prevent infection with Hansen’s disease. Even Mother Marianne Cope spoke of him in this way.

This seems a petty kind of meanness that Damien hardly deserved. For one thing, he appears to have refrained from criticizing those who chose the other route: the settlement doctors who refused to touch or even stand in the same room with their patients, treating them literally across a fence and using a cane to lift their clothing.

It also shows an inexplicable lack of understanding of Damien’s motivation, something he made clearly repeatedly in his writings and his speech. Damien may have functioned as a leader, a doctor, a builder and many other things, but he was first and foremost a priest. And he believed that he could not provide the pastoral care that God expected of him if he set himself apart from his flock, dropping the communion wafer onto their tongues from a great height, eating apart from them and depriving them of companionship and touch.

If this was foolishness, as his detractors charged, it was the kind of which the Bible speaks when Paul talks in 1st Corinthians about being "fools for Christ," or the assertion, also in 1st Corinthians that "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise." Surely Cope, at least, should have understood this?

I came away from this book knowing more about Damien than I ever did before, and, as a result, appreciating him more. The most refreshing thing about it is that Stewart appears not to have had an agenda, or at least, not the same agenda. Although clearly he’s fascinated by everything medical (there are frequent digressions into disease process), and declares his deep respect for Damien as a physician and a man, Stewart seems better able than many to see the whole man and to reveal him to us.

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