Daily Reading for April 15 • Damien, Priest and Leper, 1889, and Marianne, Religious, 1918, of Molokai
Kalawao, Molokai, May 1889
I had a lovely sail up. Captain Cameron and Mr. Gilfillan, both born in the States, yet the first still with a strong Highland, and the second still with a strong Lowland accent, were good company; the night was warm, the victuals plain but good. . . . Presently we came up with the leper promontory: lowland, quite bare and bleak and harsh, a little town of wooden houses, two churches, a landing-stair, all unsightly, sour, northerly, lying athwart the sunrise, with the great wall of the pali cutting the world out on the south. Our lepers were sent on the first boat, about a dozen, one poor child very horrid, one white man, leaving a large grown family behind him in Honolulu, and then into the second stepped the sisters and myself. I do not know how it would have been with me had the sisters not been there. My horror of the horrible is about my weakest point; but the moral loveliness at my elbow blotted all else out; and when I found that one of them was crying, poor soul, quietly under her veil, I cried a little myself; then I felt as right as a trivet, only a little crushed to be there so uselessly. . . .
There was a great crowd, hundreds of (God save us!) pantomime masks in poor human flesh, waiting to receive the sisters and the new patients. Every hand was offered: I had gloves, but I had made up my mind on the boat’s voyage NOT to give my hand; that seemed less offensive than the gloves. So the sisters and I went up among that crew, and presently I got aside (for I felt I had no business there) and set off on foot across the promontory, carrying my wrap and the camera. All horror was quite gone from me: to see these dread creatures smile and look happy was beautiful.
. . . .
Honolulu, June, 1889
My dear Colvin,
I am just home after twelve days journey to Molokai, seven of them at the leper settlement, where I can only say that the sight of so much courage, cheerfulness, and devotion strung me too high to mind the infinite pity and horror of the sights. I used to ride over from Kalawao to Kalaupapa, go to the Sisters’ home, which is a miracle of neatness, play a game of croquet with seven leper girls (90 degrees in the shade), got a little old-maid meal served me by the Sisters, and ride home again, tired enough, but not too tired. The girls have all dolls, and love dressing them. You who know so many ladies delicately clad, and they who know so many dressmakers, please make it known it would be an acceptable gift to send scraps for doll dressmaking to the Reverend Sister Maryanne, Bishop Home, Kalaupapa, Molokai, Hawaiian Islands.
I have seen sights that cannot be told, and heard stories that cannot be repeated: yet I never admired my poor race so much, nor (strange as it may seem) loved life more than in the settlement. A horror of moral beauty broods over the place: that’s like bad Victor Hugo, but it is the only way I can express the sense that lived with me all these days.
From The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, Volume 2; found at Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/637.
To see the infinite pity of this place,
The mangled limb, the devastated face,
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod—
A fool were tempted to deny his God.
He sees, and shrinks. But if he gaze again,
Lo, beauty springing from the breast of pain!
He marks the sisters on the mournful shores;
And even a fool is silent and adores.
A poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, dedicated to Mother Maryanne, Kalawao, Molokai, May 22, 1889; found in Songs of Travel and Other Verses, http://www.robert-louis-stevenson.org/poetry/37-songs-of-travel-1895