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Hawaii’s St. Damien

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island , Kauai , Maui , Oahu
Oct 12, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI canonized Jozef De Veuster yesterday, Rosary Sunday, October 11, 2009. In Hawai'i, we know him as Father Damien.

He arrived in Hawai’i on March 19, 1864 as Brother Damien. Two months later, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace ordained him a priest. In 1873, Father Damien asked to be assigned to a peninsula on the north shore of Moloka’i, known as Kalaupapa, where he could minister to the 816 Hawaiians who had been exiled there, because they suffered from Hansen’s Disease. As many suspected, the assignment proved to be a death sentence. Before St. Damien himself succumbed to leprosy—what is now called Hansen’s Disease—in 1889, he built beds, houses and coffins in addition to a church. It’s said his efforts created order out of chaos—with his leadership, laws were enforced, community farms were created, schools were erected and pride was established among a collection of outcasts.

In the magical way Hawai’i has for braiding people together, whenever I think of Father—er, St.—Damien, I think of Mark Twain.

Mark Twain visited the “Sandwich Islands” in 1866 at the very time the first group of lepers boarded a ship with one-way passage to Moloka’i. While Twain did not report that bit of news in his letters to the Sacramento Union, he did not forget it. In 1884, as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rolled off the printing presses, Twain completed another novel—or so he wrote in a letter to few friends—this one set in Hawai’i, although it was never published. He revealed a bit of the plot to William Dean Howells—that it dealt with that “leper business.” Today, only 17 pages of handwritten text remain. (They reside at the Mark Twain Project in Berkeley, California, and I’ve held them in my hands.) No one knows what happened to the rest of the manuscript; some speculate that it was reworked into Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

According to Stephen Sumida*, “Twain saw it [the Hawai’i book] as a complex and somehow troubling project combining the idyllic, the heroic, and the tragic in ways that contradicted contemporary simplistic conventions of a Hawaiian paradise.”

For more information about St. Damien and the Kalaupapa settlement, read The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai. Or visit this Wikipedia page. To read more about St. Damien’s canonization, read this article in the Honolulu Advertiser.


*Sumida, Stephen H. And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawaii. University of Washington Press, 1991. 

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