No outcasts

Daily Reading for April 15 • Damien, Priest and Leper, 1889, and Marianne, Religious, 1918, of Molokai

At. St. Philomena, Father Damien . . . looked out over his flock. They dressed as finely as they could in their circumstances, the men in white shirts and the women in flowing holokus, wrapped around the waist with folds of colorful cloth. Garlands of flowers encircled their necks or were worn as bands on broad-brimmed hats. The bouquets served double duty. . . . Skin eruptions gave off an odor even beneath fresh bandages. At times the air inside the church grew so thick that Damien struggled to continue. “I have had great difficulty in getting accustomed to such an atmosphere,” he confessed to Pamphile. “One day . . . I found myself so stifled that I thought I must leave the altar to breathe a little of the outer air.” He had weighed his moment of suffering against his congregation’s and forced himself to remain.

In his sermons Father Damien often stressed that leprosy offered an opportunity for grace. Although their disease was divinely inflicted, the exiles’ torment was “helping them to get out of sin and return to God,” as one Sacred Hearts priest wrote. Father Damien had long ago embraced the Christian notion that leprosy was a type of curse; most people in Kalawao who were religious believed the same. Yet something about this idea began to trouble Damien. After several months in the colony he began to voice suspicions that the concept was faulty, or theologically incomplete. Certainly the afflicted children in the settlement were innocent of sin; already Damien had charge of a half dozen orphans, and if a divine plan existed for their leprosy he did not see it. . . .

From the moment he had stepped ashore in the settlement, Damien had disregarded the warnings made by the board and his superiors concerning infection. “Be careful not to expose yourself to catching this awful disease,” his provincial had cautioned. Yet Damien could see no alternative. Every month, the settlers endured visits from skittish doctors, legislators, and clergymen whose detestation of the disease was obvious. Damien decided that he must not be seen as similarly fearful. How could he refrain from embracing the members of his congregation, or touching a dying patient with oil, or laying the host on the offered tongue of the communicant? To be a genuine priest, he concluded, he had to behave as if the disease held no power over him. Within days of arriving in Kalawao, Damien had abandoned all safeguards. A board physician later reported, “Fr. Damien took no precautions whatever. In the kindness of his nature, he never forbade lepers from entering his house; they had access to it any time, night and day. I named his house ‘Kalawao Family Hotel and Lepers’ Rest.’” Others observed Damien eating from communal bowls of poi, sharing his pipe with patients, and bandaging “the most frightful wounds as though he were handling flowers.”

More than 125 years after Damien contracted leprosy, in early 2004, a team of Canadian scientists discovered the “genetic quirk” within a person’s DNA that causes susceptibility to the disease. . . . Susceptibility followed genetic pathways, concentrating along particular bloodlines, both familial and ethnic. . . . . Often these lines of susceptibility were hidden among other, unrelated data. Four priests from the Paris-based Sacred Hearts order, all of whom served the mission in Hawaii, eventually contracted leprosy. Damien interpreted his infection as inevitable, and part of a divine plan. “Our Lord has willed that I be stigmatized with it,” he wrote after the first symptoms appeared. “God certainly knows what is best for my sanctification and I gladly repeat: ‘Thy will be done.’”

From The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai by John Tayman (New York: Scribner, 2006).

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