Josef de Veuster was born on January 3, 1840 in Tremolo, Flanders, Belgium. He joined the order of the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Louvain (Leuven) when he was 20 years old and took the name in religion of Damien. (During my first visit to Belgium with my late husband I went to the St. Anthony's Church in Leuven, after he had been beatified; his shrine is in the crypt now.)
The photo to the upper right is of Father Damien in 1873 before he went to Hawaii and before he joined the leper colony on Molokai to serve the people there. He looks handsome, intense, sensitive, and strong. And he would have to be all that to serve the poor people suffering from Hansen's disease, exiled because at the time the causes of and treatments for that disease weren't known.
The leper colony was established under the Segregation Law of 1865 passed in Parliament and endorsed by King Kamehameha V of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, who reigned from 1863 to 1872. According to this website:
It wasn’t until 1870 that the law was strictly enforced. The punishment, if anyone would be caught with the disease, would be forced internment in the Honolulu leprosy hospital for testing, then retesting in the Kalihi Hospital, and then banishment to the colony found on Molokai island. Any connection to the outside world would be terminated, and the person would be officially decreed as dead.
The island of Molokai was chosen as the official spot of the leprosy colony, due to its topography. This area was chosen by the Board of Health due to its numerous valleys and the hard to reach Kalawao and Kalaupapa Peninsulas. The colonies became torturous places, where stealing, destroying the land, alcoholism, and killing weaker people became the norm.
Of course, he also served their spiritual needs of the people there, as the Catholic Diocese of Hawaii explains:
He brought hope to this hell of despair. He became a source of consolation and encouragement for his flock by becoming the doctor of their souls and of their bodies without distinction of race or religion. He gave a voice to the voiceless and built a community where they discovered new reasons for living. That once lawless place had now become a place where the law of love prevailed.
This website explores the ethical, social, and cultural implications of this medical segregation.
The photograph to the upper left is of Father Damien not long before he died, taken either in February or March of 1889. He's only 49 years old. He died on April 15 of that year but his feast is celebrated on May 10--in Hawaii, the date of his death is celebrated as a state holiday. His remains were buried in the church in Belgium in 1936 (perhaps on May 10? I'm still trying to find out why May 10th was chosen as his feast). In 1995, he was beatified; in 2005, he was chosen as the "Greatest Belgian of All Time"! and in 2009 he was canonized in Rome by Pope Benedict XVI.
But soon after his death a certain Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Doctor Charles McEwan Hyde wrote a letter attacking Father Damien de Veuster as this website describes:
Hyde had viciously calumniated Father Damien, soon after the saint’s death, in a letter to an inquiring fellow Presbyterian minister, a Rev. Gage, that was subsequently published that October, 1889, in an Australian newspaper, the Sydney Presbyterian. The reason that Gage had inquired of Hyde for information about Father Damien was that the whole world was then praising the deceased priest’s charity and heroism. Stevenson (himself a Presbyterian) had read that letter . . .
And I take it, this is a type of our division; that you are one of those who have an eye for faults and failures; that you take a pleasure to find and publish them; and that, having found them, you make haste to forget the over-ailing virtues and the real success which had alone introduced them to your knowledge. It is a dangerous frame of mind. That you may understand how dangerous, and into what a situation it has already brought you, we will (if you please) go hand-in-hand through the different phrases of your letter, and candidly examine each from the point of view of its truth, its appositeness, and its charity.
Damien was COARSE.
It is very possible. You make us sorry for the lepers, who had only a coarse old peasant for their friend and father. But you, who were so refined, why were you not there, to cheer them with the lights of culture? Or may I remind you that we have some reason to doubt if John the Baptist were genteel; and in the case of Peter, on whose career your doubtless dwell approvingly in the pulpit, no doubt at all he was a “coarse, headstrong” fisherman! Yet even in our Protestant Bibles Peter is called Saint.
Damien was DIRTY.
He was. Think of the poor lepers annoyed with this dirty comrade! But the clean Dr. Hyde was at his food in a fine house.
Damien was HEADSTRONG.
I believe you are right again; and I thank God for his strong head and heart. . . .
Damien WAS NOT SENT TO MOLOKAI, BUT WENT THERE WITHOUT ORDERS.
Is this a misreading? or do you really mean the words for blame? I have heard Christ, in the pulpits of our Church, held up for imitation on the ground that His sacrifice was voluntary. Does Dr. Hyde think otherwise?
Damien DID NOT STAY AT THE SETTLEMENT, ETC.
It is true he was allowed many indulgences. Am I to understand that you blame the father for profiting by these, or the officers for granting them? In either case, it is a mighty Spartan standard to issue from the house on Beretania Street; and I am convinced you will find yourself with few supporters.
You may read the entire letter here. It is a masterpiece of correction and even invective, concluding with a call from one Presbyterian (perhaps lapsed) to another:
Is it growing at all clear to you what a picture you have drawn of your own heart? I will try yet once again to make it clearer. You had a father: suppose this tale were about him, and some informant brought it to you, proof in hand: I am not making too high an estimate of your emotional nature when I suppose you would regret the circumstance? that you would feel the tale of frailty the more keenly since it shamed the author of your days? and that the last thing you would do would be to publish it in the religious press? Well, the man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father, . . . and the father of all who love goodness; and he was your father too, if God had given you grace to see it.
To his credit, the Reverend Doctor Hyde recanted, and Stevenson's public letter brought more attention to the leper colony and more donations poured in to help continue Father Damien's work and support Sister Marianne Cope's work (now she is a saint too!)
I don't expect Matt Swaim to be able to include this in our discussion, but the connection between perhaps the most popular of Stevenson's novels, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in view of the Reverend's last name, cannot be ignored. Now, the Reverend Hyde was not a monster without conscience like Stevenson's Hyde, but G.K. Chesterton offers us an insight into Stevenson's action in confronting the Reverend Hyde in the cause of truth, justice, and charity:
is a double triumph; it has the outside excitement that belongs to Conan Doyle with the inside excitement that belongs to Henry James. Alas, it is equally characteristic of the Victorian time that while nearly every Englishman has enjoyed the anecdote, hardly one Englishman has seen the joke—I mean the point. You will find twenty allusions to Jekyll and Hyde in a day's newspaper reading. You will also find that all such allusions suppose the two personalities to be equal, neither caring for the other. Or more roughly, they think the book means that man can be cloven into two creatures, good and evil. The whole stab of the story is that man can't: because while evil does not care for good, good must care for evil. Or, in other words, man cannot escape from God, because good is the God in man; and insists on omniscience. This point, which is good psychology and also good theology and also good art, has missed its main intention merely because it was also good story-telling. (p. 87 in The Victorian Age in Literature)
So the good in the Reverend Hyde responded to Stevenson's goodness to respect and recognize the goodness of Father Damien de Veuster, because only good would care for evil and would correct, through a chastened conscience, errors in judgment and compassion. And Stevenson responded to the good in Father Damien and appealed to the good in Reverend Hyde, having compassion for the errors both the Saint and his erstwhile critic might have committed.
May Reverend Charles McEwan Hyde rest in peace!
May Robert Louis Stevenson rest in peace!
Saint Damien de Veuster, pray for us!
Saint Marianne Cope, pray for us!