Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Book Review: Damien the Leper

The following brief review was also posted at Goodreads.

Since his canonization in 2009, there has been a spate of books about St. Damien of Molokai, the missionary priest who ministered to the lepers of Hawaii from 1873 to 1889. According to Amazon, five were published in 2009 and eight since. I have read none of these, so I can’t compare. But Damien the Leper—a quaint, slim biography written in 1937—holds up well as a concise, moving appreciation of a modern martyr. I found it in a used bookstore while on vacation in Maine. It bears an original cover price of 85 cents, and I bought it for 50. So its monetary value has held up pretty well too.

Joseph de Veusters was born in Belgium in 1840. He took the name Damien on entering religious life at age 20, in honor of the third-century physician and martyr St. Damian, twin brother of St. Cosmas. He dreamed of mission work and got his wish when his order shipped him to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) at age 23. Ten years later, he volunteered for the saintly suicide mission of caring for the hundreds of lepers confined in a crude corner of the island of Molokai. He did so knowing that he would probably suffer their fate.

Farrow does a good job of setting the historical context for Damien’s mission in Europe and the Pacific, and of describing the scenery. He does not overpraise Damien, but points out his many imperfections while explaining how he transformed the lives of his “parishioners,” eventually drawing the attention of the rich and powerful to their plight. Farrow finishes by printing the one scathingly critical letter of Damien written by a contemporary, a Congregational minister living in luxury in Honolulu.

This is followed by a long letter from Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island. It is a reply to the minister after Stevenson, a Congregationalist himself, conducted his own fact-finding mission on Molokai following Damien’s death.

Stevenson acknowledges many of the accusations the minister levels at Damien. Yes, the Belgian missionary was coarse, he was dirty, he was headstrong and even bigoted. But then John the Baptist was not genteel, and St. Peter might have been called coarse and headstrong.

And bigoted (by which the minister meant that Damien was a devout Catholic)? “The point of interest in Damien,” Stevenson writes, “was that, in him, his bigotry, his intense and narrow faith, wrought potently for good, and strengthened him to be one of the world’s heroes and exemplars. . . . It was his part, by one striking act of martyrdom, to direct all men’s eyes on that distressful country. At a blow, and with the price of his life, he made the place illustrious and public.”

Stevenson’s long letter is followed by the minister’s dismissive rejoinder. “Stevenson,” he remarked, “is simply a Bohemian crank, a negligible person, whose opinion is of no value to anyone.”

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