A Saint for the Sick: Damien of Molokaʻi

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By Matthew Sawczyn

“Dear Lord, you died at thirty-three. I begin my life at thirty-three.”

Thus prays Fr. Damien upon landing at Molokaʻi, the island where “no patient leaves except in a coffin.”

The year is 1873. The terrifying, still mysterious scourge of leprosy ravages the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, and the island of Molokaʻi has been designated as a quarantine colony, where suspected patients are permanently sent. In perpetual isolation, the conditions on the island are atrocious; the demoralized, despairing population gives itself over to every sin. As adventuring novelist Robert Louis Stevenson described it: “A pitiful place to visit and a hell to dwell in… I never recall the days and nights I spent upon that island promontory (eight days and seven nights) without heartfelt thankfulness that I am somewhere else…” In blunt words, he painted the people as, “Gorgons and Chimaeras…pantomime deformations of our common manhood. Such a population as only now and again surrounds us in the horrors of a nightmare.” 

It is into this exact land of disease and decay that Fr. Damien De Veuster, a Beligum missionary and priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, volunteers to go. With fervor he dives headfirst into this ministry, making it his new life mission to improve the lives of the sick on Molokaʻi.

It is this ministry that the 1999 film Molokai focuses on, placing us on the ground of Molokaʻi, as it were, alongside Fr. Damien as he prays, toils, and suffers for his ever ailing flock. The movie boasts a formidable cast by any standard: David Wenham, Peter O’Toole, Derek Jacobi, Kris Kristenoff, and Alice Krige. Shot on location, the vibrant, breathtaking scenery contrasts sharply with the pitiful state of the island’s inhabitants. They would be in paradise, if their bodies were not trapped in a palpable hell. As the real Fr. Damien put in a letter: “I feel no disgust when I hear the confessions of those near their end, whose wounds are full of maggots…This may give you some idea of my daily work.”

Nevertheless, Fr. Damien does his best to give the citizens of the island as normal a life as he can construct (sometimes literally), as he builds houses, plants crops, organizes community activities, administers the sacraments, and tends to the dying. With zeal he gives of himself, each and every day. The work is never easy. Over his years there, Fr. Damien clashes with pillaging gangs, contends with corrupt law enforcement, fights for supplies from the outside world, and fends off sexual advances. He stops the anarchy and hedonism the island had given itself over to in its misery. He ignores the conventional words of caution against interaction with the population, touching and eating with the people, who until then had grown accustomed to fear, repulsion, and exile from the rest of the world. Imitating the Lord, Damien embraces them when no one else will. He gives himself wholeheartedly to these people and to this mission, and reasons that if God wants to, He will keep him from the disease.

In these simple yet heroic gestures a handshake, a hug, sharing a utensil of kindness Fr. Damien affirms the dignity of the islanders, and restores them as best he can to that state, even as their bodies literally rot away. scenes are particularly powerful in our current pandemic, in which we doubtless appreciate anew the power held in human touch. In a particularly moving scene, a drunken mob attempts to disgust and repel a disapproving Fr. Damien, carrying a maimed and rotting man named Jimmy to him. Covered in sores, Jimmy latches onto Fr. Damien, rubbing his skin against the priest’s face. Undeterred, Fr. Damien grasps Jimmy, and holds the man tenderly, with a kindness he had undoubtedly not known for years. In the actual recorded words of one patient from the island: “He overwhelms us with his care.”

Finally, after eleven years of arguably miraculous immunity, Fr. Damien contracts leprosy himself. Despite the excruciating pain, and slow decay of his body, he continues unabated, serving the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of the colony, until his eventual death by the disease at the age of forty-nine.

Molokai is a powerful film. Wenham portrays, with excellent realism, a believable saint: a humble man, a fiery man, a tempted man, a practical man, a man who labored until he died from the sickness he exposed himself to for the sake of the suffering. It is everything a faith film should be, relying on stellar acting and strong storytelling, and letting Fr. Damien’s saintly example speak for itself. Its effective simplicity makes for a moving experience, as we watch a man give of himself every day, enriching the lives of all those around him. His is a pure, sacrificial love.

Inside the United States Capitol, on the south side of the building, rests the National Statuary Hall. A circular chamber styled after the ancient amphitheaters, it is devoted to sculptures of notable Americans; the closest thing Americans have to a secular pantheon. It was founded in 1894, when Congress invited each state to commission statues of two prominent figures from their territory, to stand as the pride of the state, and to serve as examples for every American. In 1969, ten years after it joined the Union, Hawaii submitted a statue of Fr. Damien to the Hall, placing him in the company of its first king, Kamehameha I.

Judging from the exceptional accounts of his life, from his complete self-giving to his beloved lepers, Fr. Damien presents a timely model for our country. He seems like the perfect example for us right now.


About the Author

Matthew Sawczyn is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, and an alumnus of JPCatholic (MBA in Film Producing – Class of 2017). He loves hiking, HBO, and cuddly cats.

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