"I am ready to be buried alive with those poor wretches." The man who spoke was Father Damien. The wretches he spoke of were the outcasts of Molokai Island. The curse of the Hawaiian archipelago, so blessed in other ways, was leprosy. Individuals with leprosy were sent to a peninsula on Molokai. The disease, which caused damaged extremities to rot off the body, was so feared that the Hawaiian government had made it illegal for anyone landing on the peninsula to return to the other islands. Damien knew if he went he could not return. On this day May 4, 1873 he made an irrevocable decision. He would confront the gates of Hell.
Conditions on the island were bestial. Young girls in whom leprosy had just been discovered were raped by demon-faced men in final decay. The stronger victims threw the weaker out of huts to die. The island's huts were foul with disease and despair. Most of the sufferers reeked of decaying flesh.
Damien turned white as a sheet on the beach. Yet he prayed to be able to see Christ in the ghastly forms before him. Given one last chance to leave, he refused. He had volunteered for Hell and he intended to civilize it.
The son of a Flemish farmer, Damien had entered the priesthood with great ardor. His very presence in Hawaii was the result of incessant pleas. Once there he had proven himself a determined evangelist. But nothing he had done before could compare with the efforts he made now.
Although water was plentiful in the mountains, there was little in the settlement. Damien organized daily bucket brigades. Later he constructed a flume which diverted a stream of water to their doorsteps. He developed farms. The apathetic lepers had neglected even this rudimentary effort. He burned the worst houses and scoured out the rest. Saw and ax in hand, he built new houses. He laid out a cemetery. From now on, those who died would be properly buried. He prepared a dump and cleaned up the village and its environs. He shut down the production of alcohol stills.
And he evangelized. His cheerful conversation led dozens to Christ. The same men who had stolen from the dying or dumped them in ditches, now came to Damien for baptism.
Jealous Protestant authorities, who had done little for the lepers, spread scandalous stories about Damien. But he labored on. Twelve years after he came to the island, he discovered that his own feet were leprous. Four years later he was dead. His quiet heroism won worldwide renown. It brought new donations for the island and a staff of nurses and other helpers. By his own gruesome living death he assaulted the gates of Hell.
- "Damien of Molokai." Anderson, Gerald H. Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. New York : Macmillan Reference USA; London : Simon & Schuster and Prentice Hall International, 1998.
- Daniel-Rops, Henri. The Heroes of God. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965, 1958.
- Farrow, John. Damien the Leper. Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1954.
- Stevenson, Robert Louis. In the South Seas. New York: Scribners, 1911.
Last updated April, 2007.