Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blessed Damien of Molokai: May 10

Today is the holiday of Father Damien of Molokai, a Catholic priest, born in Belgium in 1840, who ministered to sufferers of Hansen's disease, or leprosy. (Hansen was the Norwegian physician who, in 1873, identified the bacterium that causes the disease.)

Father Damien was beatified in 1995 (one of the steps in the process of being declared a saint by the Catholic Church), and as a result he was granted the title "Blessed" and given this memorial holiday on May 10.

Although he cannot be called a "patron saint" yet, he is considered a "spiritual patron" for people who suffer not just from Hansen's disease, but also HIV/AIDS, a disease which, like leprosy, not only can bring great physical suffering, but also the social pain of prejudice, neglect and isolation.

Father Damien went to Hawaii in 1864, when it was still an independent kingdom, ruled by King Kamehameha. Hansen's disease, like syphilis and other European diseases, had been brought to the island, affecting many Hawaiians. (You can read an article at the BBC about how European colonialism and the slave trade spread the disease around the world.)

Those Hawaiians suffering from leprosy had been sent to the island of Molokai. There are now drugs that are used to treat Hansen's disease, but these were discovered only in the 1940s. Standard practice was, and had been for centuries, to send the victims of Hansen's disease away, forcing them to live in segregated colonies, like the colony on Molokai.

When Father Damien learned about this, he asked permission to go to the island in order to minister to the patients there.

He arrived at Molokai in 1873, and spent the rest of his life there until 1889, when he died of Hansen's disease himself. He was not just a priest to the patients there, but also worked as a doctor, as the colony had been effectively abandoned by the government and the patients were not being cared for. Under Father Damien's leadership, the colony took charge of its resources, building better housing and establishing farms and a school.

Although there was some controversy about Father Damien's activities raised by Protestant church officials in Hawaii, the consensus seems to be that he acted out of great self-sacrifice in his ministry to the patients on Molokai. Gandhi cited Father Damien as an inspiration for his own work. Here is a quote from Gandhi: "The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Moloka'i. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism."

There are several films about Father Damien, although I have not seen any of them. I would, however, highly recommend a truly marvelous film, Motorcycle Diaries, about the early life of Che Guevara, which culminates in his stay at a leprosarium in Peru, when he was in his early 20s. At the time, Che Guevara was a medical student, and the part of the movie devoted to the time he spent at the leprosarium is deeply moving. I think I will investigate a couple of the films that have been done about Father Damien but, in the meantime, I can recommend Motorcycle Diaries most highly! Although the Catholic Church and communism have been historically at odds with one another, I wonder what kind of conversation Che Guevara and Father Damien might have had if their paths had crossed in space and time!

For an image to accompany this post, I chosen this painting of Father Damien, done in the style of Greek icon painting, but in English and with the distinctive touch of a Hawaiian lei. I found the image at a webpage with a biography of Father Damien, at the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary website for the eastern U.S. This is the same religious order of which Father Damien was a member.

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