A Burnt-Out Case

A Burnt-Out Case Father Damien of Molokai (1840-1889)

Early in A Burnt-Out Case, Doctor Colin and the Superior make a passing reference to "Damien," noting that they suspect this person of being a leprophil (one who is pietistically attracted to lepers and leprosy). The allusion is to a man called Father Damien of Molokai, among the most famous Catholic missionaries - a man who devoted his life to treating lepers, and who died a leper himself.

Father Damien was born Jozef de Veuster in the small Flemish village of Tremelo. He came from a poor family of farmers and worked on the family farm as a boy. Indeed, throughout his career he retained a reputation for coarseness that is linked to his lower-class origins. In 1860, he joined a Catholic order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and accepted missionary work in Hawaii. While in Honolulu, he was ordained as a priest and took the name Damien, likely in honor of the early Christian Saint Damien.

By the time of Damien's arrival, native Hawaiian populations had been decimated by Western diseases - syphilis, influenza, leprosy, etc. Having never been exposed to these diseases, the natives had never developed immunities; they were thus extremely susceptible. The lepers of Hawaii collected on the island of Molokai in a settlement at Kaulapapa, nicknamed "The Settlement of Death." Kaulapapa was essentially lawless; lepers violently competed for scarce resources and went untreated both physically or spiritually. Father Damien accepted the role of establishing a church and medical facility at Kaulapapa knowing that he was likely to die there.

Under Damien's leadership, the settlement at Kaulapapa improved drastically. He established a church, reestablished basic law and order, and worked as a doctor for the eight-hundred and sixteen lepers on the island. He continued to built and tend his mission until, in 1884, he contracted leprosy himself. He discovered the disease during his morning ritual of cleaning his feet in scalding water - one morning, he simply could not feel his feet anymore. They were leprous.

Despite his disease, Father Damien continued to work with lepers until his death in 1889. Some anti-Catholic authorities, most notably the Presbyterian Reverend Dr. Hyde of Honolulu, disparaged Father Damien openly, calling him egomaniacal, morally loose, hygienically offensive, and so on. Father Damien immediately met with spirited and eloquent defense from several quarters, perhaps most notably from Robert Louis Stevenson, who refuted Dr. Hyde's claims in an open letter and lauded the man for his heroism. In time, Stevenson's opinion held the field: in 1995, Father Damien (hereafter "Blessed" Damien) was canonized by Pope John Paul II.

Father Damien's example inspired some of the most remarkable heroes of the twentieth century. Mahatma Ghandi, for one, cited Damien as an inspiration in his own work. "The leper priest," as he is sometimes known, has been memorialized both at the state capitol of Hawaii and with a statue at the United States Capitol. His grave continues to attract admirers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.