Robert Louis Stevens and St Damian de Veuster de Molokai (1840-1889)
“The Martyr of Molokai”
Father Damien had become internationally known before his death, seen as a symbolic Christian figure caring for the afflicted natives. His superiors thought Damien lacking in education and finesse but knew him as “an earnest peasant hard at work in his own way for God.” News of his death on 15 April was quickly carried across the globe by the modern communications of the time, by steamship to Honolulu and California, telegraph to the East Coast of the United States and cable to England, reaching London on 11 May. Following an outpouring of praise for his work, other voices began to be heard in Hawaiʻi.
Representatives of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in Hawaii criticised his approach. Reverend Charles McEwen Hyde, a Presbyterian minister in Honolulu, wrote in August to fellow pastor, Reverend H. B. Gage of San Francisco. Hyde referred to Father Damien as “a coarse, dirty man,” who contracted leprosy due to “carelessness”. Hyde said that Damien was mistakenly being given credit for reforms that were made by the Board of Health. Without consulting with Hyde, Gage had the letter published in a San Francisco newspaper, generating comment and controversy in the US and Hawaiʻi. People of the period consistently overlooked the role of Hawaiians themselves, among whom several had prominent roles of leadership on the island.
Later in 1889 Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his family arrived in Hawaii for an extended stay. He had tuberculosis, then also incurable, and was seeking some relief. Moved by Damien’s story, he became interested in the controversy about the priest and went to Molokaʻi for eight days and seven nights. Stevenson wanted to learn more about Damien at the place where he had worked. He spoke with residents of varying religious backgrounds to learn more about Damien’s work. Based on his conversations and observations, he wrote an open letter to Hyde that addressed the minister’s criticisms and had it printed at his own expense. This became the most famous account of Damien, featuring him in the role of a European aiding a benighted native people.
In his “6,000-word polemic,” Stevenson praised Damien extensively, writing to Hyde:
If that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage.
Stevenson referred to his journal entries in his letter:
“…I have set down these private passages, as you perceive, without correction; thanks to you, the public has them in their bluntness. They are almost a list of the man’s faults, for it is rather these that I was seeking: with his virtues, with the heroic profile of his life, I and the world were already sufficiently acquainted. I was besides a little suspicious of Catholic testimony; in no ill sense but merely because Damien’s admirers and disciples were the least likely to be critical. I know you will be more suspicious still; and the facts set down above were one and all collected from the lips of Protestants who had opposed the father in his life. Yet I am strangely deceived, or they build up the image of a man, with all his weakness, essentially heroic and alive with rugged honesty, generosity and mirth.”
In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Father Damien to be venerable. On 4 June 1995, Pope John Paul II beatified him and gave him his official spiritual title of Blessed. On 20 December 1999, Jorge Medina Estévez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, confirmed the November 1999 decision of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to place Blessed Damien on the liturgical calendar with the rank of optional memorial. Father Damien was canonised on 11 October 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI. His feast day is celebrated on 10 May. In Hawaii it is celebrated on the day of his death, 15 April.
Two miracles have been attributed to Father Damien’s posthumous intercession. On 13 June 1992, Pope John Paul II approved the cure of a nun in France in 1895 as a miracle attributed to Venerable Damien’s intercession. In that case, Sister Simplicia Hue began a novena to Father Damien as she lay dying of a lingering intestinal illness. It is stated that pain and symptoms of the illness disappeared overnight.
In the second case, Audrey Toguchi, a Hawaiian woman who suffered from a rare form of cancer, had remission after having prayed at the grave of Father Damien on Molokaʻi. There was no medical explanation, as her prognosis was terminal. In 1997, Toguchi was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a cancer that arises in fat cells. She underwent surgery a year later and a tumor was removed but the cancer metastasized to her lungs. Her physician, Dr. Walter Chang, told her, “Nobody has ever survived this cancer. It’s going to take you.” Toguchi was surviving in 2008.
In April 2008, the Holy See accepted the two cures as evidence of Father Damien’s sanctity. On 2 June 2008, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican voted to recommend raising Father Damien of Molokaʻi to sainthood. The decree that officially notes and verifies the miracle needed for canonization was promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal José Saraiva Martins on 3 July 2008, with the ceremony taking place in Rome and celebrations in Belgium and Hawaii. On 21 February 2009, the Vatican announced that Father Damien would be canonised. The ceremony took place in Rome on Rosary Sunday, 11 October 2009, in the presence of King Albert II of the Belgians and Queen Paola as well as the Belgian Prime Minister, Herman Van Rompuy, and several cabinet ministers, completing the process of canonisation. In Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama affirmed his deep admiration for St. Damien, saying that he gave voice to voiceless and dignity to the sick.