- Leper Priest of Moloka‘i: The Father Damien Story
Blessed Damien DeVeuster of Moloka'i(1840-1889) attracted the attention of authors even in his own lifetime. Charles Warren Stoddard published The Lepers of Moloka'i in 1885, and its success, along with numerous letters and articles about the heroic Belgian priest who had dedicated his life to the lepers of the Hawaiian islands, ensured that the name of Father Damien was known throughout Europe and the Americas. Many popular accounts of Damien's life [End Page 581] were published in the twentieth century, prior to his beatification by Pope John Paul II on June 4, 1995. The present work, authored by a medical researcher and retired professor of the Medical College of Wisconsin, offers a unique perspective on the story of a man who attended to the spiritual and physical needs of individuals cut off from most forms of spiritual and social interaction.
The "disease that tears families apart"—that was the Hawaiian term for leprosy. Forcibly removed from their relatives and communities, and transported to the desolate peninsula of Moloka'i, the lepers of the colony that Father Damien first encountered in 1873 were a community in need of social, medical, and spiritual ministration. It was a flock to whom he devoted the next sixteen years of his life: tending their souls, dressing their repellent sores, constructing their dwellings and churches, and burying their dead in decent coffins that would resist the depredations of the island's wild pigs.
One strength of Stewart's impressive book is that it is solidly based on archival resources found in Damien's Congregation of the Sacred Hearts in Belgium, the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, New York (who worked with him on Moloka'i), and numerous other collections. Throughout Leper Priest, these resources are not only skillfully utilized to present a balanced picture of Father Damien and his acquaintances, but are also effectively interpreted in the light of Hawaiian history and the medical reality of leprosy itself. While the heroism of the Belgian priest is apparent, his headstrong nature and struggles with loneliness and spiritual isolation are not ignored.
Though well written and solidly researched, Stewart's very strengths occasionally detract from his work. The prose which engages us and draws us into Damien's story can at times become overwrought. Consider this example: "Waves of anxiety hurled themselves at his psyche, battering it with the same ferocity as did the waves that pummeled the rocky shoreline of the Kalaupapa Peninsula" (p. 261). The medical expertise of the author that so effectively aids in the exposition of leprosy and its effects, at points offers more detail than the reader might desire, e.g., "microscopic rickettsia were violating the delicate endothelial cells that lined the blood vessels of his brain, liver, muscles, and kidneys" (p. 35). Finally, the author seems unfamiliar with some aspects of Catholic Christianity, for example: religious profession is confused with priestly ordination (pp. 28-30), the Mass is referred to as being celebrated in the Hawaiian language (p. 47), and Saint John the Baptist is confused with Saint John the Evangelist (pp. 76-77).
These few elements do not detract, however, from a highly informative and well-researched account of the heroic life that inspired, among others, Blessed Theresa of Calcutta. When discouraged, Damien (born Joseph, nicknamed "Jef") would often repeat to himself this phrase: "Come on Jef, my boy, this is your life's work!" (p. 124). Damien DeVeuster's life's work is skillfully presented in this valuable study.