For more than a century, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have been sharing the heroic story of St. Damien of Molokai (1840-89), a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who left his native Belgium for the community’s mission in Hawaii. He spent the last 16 years of his life ministering to the lepers confined to the Kalaupapa and Kalawao regions of the island of Molokai, ultimately contracting and dying of the disease himself.
Damien was canonized in 2009; the Church celebrates his feast day on May 10. Closely linked to Fr. Damien is Sr. Marianne Cope (1838-1918), a Franciscan sister from New York who came with a group of sisters and nursed Fr. Damien as he was dying, then continuing his work on the island.
Fr. Herman Gomes is pastor of St. Ann Church in Kaneohe on the eastern side of Oahu—the same parish at which he served as an altar boy in his youth—and for 38 years has been a Sacred Hearts father, the same community to which Damien belonged. He has studied Damien’s life extensively, and is frequently called upon by the island’s Catholics to share the story of the saint. He has also traveled to Molokai to celebrate Mass and provide the sacraments for the few remaining patients—they prefer not to be referred to as “lepers”—who remain on Molokai by choice.
Fr. Gomes recently spoke to CWR.
CWR: What qualities do you admire most about Damien?
Fr. Herman Gomes: I have been teaching classes about him since 1994, and I’ve picked up a lot of information along the way. I would say I’m most impressed by his amazing and unflinching faith in God.
One of the best examples of this is when he discovered he had leprosy. He wrote a letter home saying that he had no illusion as to what this meant. For years he worked with those who had the disease, and had seen how it disfigured them and caused them so much pain and suffering. But he was able to write: “If this is what God wants for my sanctification, His will be done.”
Damien saw contracting leprosy as a stepping stone to his own holiness.
CWR: Damien holds a prominent place in Hawaii’s Catholic institutions. How do Hawaiians regard him?
Fr. Gomes: I believe they see him as a model of faith, a servant of God and a servant of humanity. He really was a great humanitarian. He came to Hawaii all the way from Belgium and lived 25 years here. He never went back. He was a true missionary.
He served nine years on the Big Island before volunteering to come to Kalaupapa. He was its resident priest for 16 years, the last four and a half with the disease.
CWR: He was well known, even in his own day.
Fr. Gomes: Yes, he became a world figure. People donated money from all over the world, and from as far away as England. He, in fact, had a conflict with his bishop over money, as people were not donating to the Hawaiian missions, but specifically to Fr. Damien’s settlement. The bishop thought the money should support all of the work of the Church on the Hawaiian Islands, whereas Damien thought it rightfully should go to his settlement.
CWR: When people visit the Hawaiian Islands and want to visit significant sites relating to Fr. Damien, where do you recommend they visit?
Fr. Gomes: On Oahu, I’d start with St. Patrick Church in Honolulu. It is operated by the Sacred Hearts fathers and has the archives of Fr. Damien. It has a full-time archivist, and people can make an appointment to see artifacts related to Fr. Damien. These include such things as vestments he used, his glasses and his pipe. It is our hope one day to open a museum dedicated to Fr. Damien and St. Marianne Cope at St. Augustine Church in Waikiki.
Another site to see in Honolulu is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, where Damien was ordained a priest shortly after arriving in Hawaii. It has some shrines to them, some artifacts and a gift shop.
And, of course, there is the Kalaupapa settlement on Molokai, where Damien served. There are fewer than a dozen residents remaining there today; in fact, there are more government employees living there than original residents.
It’s expensive to visit Molokai, perhaps $400 or $500 for a day trip by air, although if you charter a nine-person passenger plane it can reduce the cost. It is expensive for the state government to maintain the site, with such things as funding a post office and an airport, but the system will remain in place until the last resident dies. The idea is that the residents were once forced there, so they won’t be forced out.
[Editor’s note: The government lifted the quarantine on Molokai’s lepers in 1969. Some have chosen to remain, however, as it is the home they’d known for most of their lives. The remaining seven residents range in age from their 70s to age 91. Visitors can come to Molokai, but they must come at the invitation of a resident or staff member or through the resident-owned Damien Tours. All visitors must be flown in; the largest plane the airport can accommodate is a nine-seater.]
If you don’t know anything about Damien and Marianne, however, there’s nothing to see on Molokai. The houses are very primitive, and the airport looks like a garage. But, if you’re familiar with their lives of these saints, all of a sudden the place comes to life. You can see the absolute misery that once existed there.
CWR: How bad were the conditions Fr. Damien encountered when he first went to Molokai?
Fr. Gomes: Fr. Damien arrived May 10, 1873. Interestingly enough, May 10 is his feast day even though Damien died on April 15, 1889. Normally a saint’s feast day is the day of his death.
The Kalaupapa settlement began less than a decade before, in 1865, for people afflicted with leprosy. By decree of the King and the Board of Health, those with the disease had to go and could not leave; they didn’t know if they’d ever see their loved ones again.
When Damien arrived he encountered the residents, a few huts but no police force. So, Damien came to a land in which there was no law, other than the law that might makes right. The stronger could overpower the weaker, abusing them physically and sexually and taking away their possessions. Abuse of women and children was common.
There were no consequences for bad behavior. How could you threaten them with jail? In their minds they already were in jail.
Damien’s contribution was to bring dignity and lawfulness to the people and direct them to God. One of the first things he established was the Christian Burial Association. He insisted that if a person’s body was treated with dignity at death, it would give honor to his life. Previously, there was no respect for the dead. Bodies might be left on the side of the road. Or, they would be buried in shallow graves, but the wild pigs would dig them up and eat them.
Damien wanted the people on Molokai to enjoy a good life. He came from a farming family, so he wanted livestock for the residents to raise, and seeds so they could plant crops. He begged for lumber and nails so he could build houses and a hospital, and enlarge the island’s church. His goal was to make the settlement self-sufficient.
He transformed the settlement, changing it from a place of despair to one that was tolerable, even pleasant.
CWR: Damien was also known for maintaining an intense prayer life, such as daily Mass and meditation and the rosary. He said the Eucharist made his life on Molokai bearable.
Fr. Gomes: Yes. One of our Sacred Heart priests, Fr. Vital Jourdain, wrote The Heart of Father Damien (The Bruce Publishing Company, 1955). He noted that from the minute Fr. Damien got up in the morning, he’d begin with morning prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Mass.
He’d then pray as he’d go about his daily duties. For example, he was burying people all the time. He would say the rosary while he was digging in the graveyard, or the Garden of the Dead, as he called it.
CWR: What were some of the most difficult challenges he faced?
Fr. Gomes: He experienced awful loneliness. He was always begging for another priest. The Sacred Hearts fathers would send him some, but they wouldn’t last long. Damien was a hard man to get along with. He was a determined man; some would say stubborn and cantankerous. He had a rough edge. It was his way or the highway. So, priests would come and minister, but get tired of living with Damien.
Being the only priest could make it difficult for Damien to have his confession heard. In one story, another priest was in a boat off the beach, but wouldn’t come on shore because of the leprosy. So, with Damien on the beach and the priest on the boat Damien shouted out his confession and received absolution. Damien and the priest spoke in French, however, so those around them couldn’t understand.
Also, at the time of his death, I think Damien felt rejected by his own congregation and the local Church. Because he had contracted leprosy, the local bishop told him he had to stay on Molokai.
CWR: What work are the Sacred Hearts fathers doing today on the Hawaiian Islands?
Fr. Gomes: We have 23 priests here, and we operate five parishes and a retirement home. One of our priests, Fr. Patrick, is in residence in Kalaupapa. He’s from Ireland and is in his late 70s. He’s happy there and likes working with the residents. He likes to talk to groups who visit, sharing the story of Fr. Damien.
CWR: How are the Sacred Hearts fathers doing for vocations?
Fr. Gomes: We’re doing well. We have 12 seminarians. Four are in the novitiate here in Kaneohe. Our graduate seminary program is in Fiji. We were in Berkeley, but the cost to educate a seminarian there was $50,000 annually vs. $12,000 in Fiji.
If you came to our seminary, I think you’d find our liturgies beautiful.
CWR: Do you have a devotion to St. Damien?
Fr. Gomes: Oh, yes. I was down for a year with colon cancer and had quadruple bypass surgery. I’m always asking Damien for help.
CWR: And you recommend others pray to him for help?
Fr. Gomes: Absolutely. The whole reason the Catholic Church has saints is so that they can be our intercessors or friends in heaven. They are also examples to us of holiness.
When Damien first stepped off the boat onto Hawaii in 1864, he was not a saint. He as a rough, young white man from Europe who thought he’d be the savior of the islands. In his first letter home, he writes of listening to the kanaka, or people of Hawaii, singing. He said that he couldn’t wait to be ordained so he could minister to the “savages” of the islands.
A few years later, writing as a priest getting used to the title “Father,” he refers to the same people as his sons and daughters. Later, he refers to them as his brothers and sisters in Christ. And, when he contracts leprosy, he says “we lepers.” He’s not over or smarter than the Hawaiians, but one with the people. You can see his evolution over a 25-year period, spiritually maturing along the way.