Before the advent of modern medicine, one of the most feared and devastating diseases was leprosy. Even the stories of Jesus include the healing of lepers as the most definitive statement of spiritual power, the kind that Father Damien revealed in his life and work in Hawaii that shows the true meaning of Christmas and how love is the ultimate goal for us all.
Father Damien, revered by Catholics as a Saint, is a symbol of sacrifice and love to the people of Hawaii, where he dedicated his life to the healing of lepers. He was able to rise above personal fears to reach out to those who were isolated and without hope.
Molokai is one of the smaller islands in the cluster of lands in Hawaii. It is less of a tourist destination than a mostly rural community where people value close relationships and simple ways. It was on this island that Father Damien, originally from Belgium, came to do his work, after joining the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, which was also known as the Picpus Congregation.
In 1864, when Damien was just 24, he journeyed to Hawaii where he learned of the plight of the lepers on Molokai and decided to serve these people, some of whom were raised there, but most of whom had been deported from the other islands.
Father Damien remained on Molokai for the remainder of his life. He became not just a spiritual solace to the lepers but worked with his own hands to improve their physical lives as well. He even built coffins to bury the dead, even as he appealed to other missionaries and the government of Hawaii to help him.
The great and good man who lived to serve the social outcasts of leprosy died of the dreaded disease himself on April 15, 1889. He was beatified by Pope Paul II in 1995 and declared a saint by the Catholic Church officially in 2009.
Reverend C.M. Hyde published in The Presbyterian newspaper on 26 October 1889 a criticism of Father Damien, calling attention to the “dirt” and poor conditions of the mission on Molokai. This so angered the great writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, a Presbyterian himself who had traveled to Molokai after Father Damien’s death, that he wrote a detailed summary defending the life and work of Father Damien, as the service of a man who was not perfect in all his human ways. Stevenson chastised Hyde, and other religious leaders of the time, of being hurtful, while living lives apart from people in need in grand houses, often far better than the parishioners they served.
Stevenson wrote this of Father Damien, addressing Hyde and other clergy who had participated in what Stevenson maintained was serious slander, “The man who did 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 the grace to see it.”
What Stevenson addressed in his writing of Father Damien is often forgotten as we look at heroes and saintly folk. We expect lives of perfection, forgetting that admonition that we all fall short ourselves. It was indeed the courage and spiritual strength of a man who went beyond his personal fears to serve those most hurt, isolated and disfigured, risking his own life at the end. It is that reverence for service beyond the ordinary that Stevenson accented in his defense of Father Damien, that type of service Jesus demonstrated in the famous story of the healing of the lepers, something not just to remember during the holidays but for the ages as an example of the highest good of man.