Heroes Every Child Should Know - H. W. Mabie

Father Damien

As we approached Molokai I found that the slow work of centuries had nearly covered its lava with verdure. At dawn we were opposite Kalaupapa. Two little spired churches, looking precisely alike, caught my eye first, and around them were dotted the white cottages of the lepers. But the sea was too rough for us to land. The waves dashed against the rocks, and the spray rose fifty feet into the air.

We went on to Kalawao, but were again disappointed; it was too dangerous to disembark. Finally it was decided to put off a boat for a rocky point about a mile and a half distant from the town. Climbing down this point we saw about twenty lepers, and "There is Father Damien!" said our purser; and, slowly moving along the hillside, I saw a dark figure with a large straw hat. He came rather painfully down, and sat near the water-side, and we exchanged friendly signals across the waves while my baggage was being got out of the hold—a long business, owing to the violence of the sea. At last all was ready, and we went swinging across the waves, and finally chose a fit moment for leaping on shore. Father Damien caught me by the hand, and a hearty welcome shone from his kindly face as he helped me up the rock. He immediately called me by my name, "Edward," and said it was "like everything else, a providence," that he had met me at that irregular landing-place, for he had expected the ship to stop at Kalaupapa.

He was now forty-nine years old—a thick-set, strongly built man, with black curly hair and short beard, turning gray. His countenance must have been handsome, with a full, well-curved mouth and a short, straight nose; but he was now a good deal disfigured by leprosy, though not so badly as to make it anything but a pleasure to look at his bright, sensible face. His forehead was swollen and rigid, the eyebrows gone, the nose somewhat sunk, and the ears greatly enlarged. His hands and face looked uneven with a sort of incipient boils, and his body also showed many signs of the disease, but he assured me that he had felt little or no pain since he had tried Dr. Goto's system of hot baths and Japanese medicine. The bathrooms that have been provided by the Government are very nice.

A large wooden box of presents from English friends, had been unshipped with the gurjun oil. It was, however, so large that Father Damien said it would be impossible for his lepers either to land it from the boat or to carry it to Kalawao, and that it must be returned to the steamer and landed on some voyage when the sea was quieter. But I could not give up the pleasure of his enjoyment in its contents, so after some delay it was forced open in the boat, and the things were handed out one by one across the waves. The lepers all came round with their poor marred faces, and the presents were carried home by them and our two selves.

As we ascended the hill on which the village is built Father Damien showed me on our left the chicken farm. The lepers are justly proud of it, and before many days I had a fine fowl sent me for dinner, which, after a little natural timidity, I ate with thankfulness.

On arriving at Kalawao we speedily found ourselves inside the half-finished church which was the darling of his heart. How he enjoyed planning the places where the pictures which I had just brought him should be placed! By the side of this church he showed me the palm-tree under which he lived for some weeks when he first arrived at the settlement, in 1873. His own little four-roomed house almost joins the church.

After dinner we went up the little flight of steps which led to Father Damien's balcony. This was shaded by a honeysuckle in blossom. Some of my happiest times at Molokai were spent in this little balcony, sketching him and listening to what he said. The lepers came up to watch my progress, and it was pleasant to see how happy and at home they were. Their poor faces were often swelled and drawn and distorted, with bloodshot goggle eyes.

I offered to give a photograph of the picture to his brother in Belgium, but he said perhaps it would be better not to do so, as it might pain him to see how he was disfigured. He looked mournfully at my work. "What an ugly face!" he said; "I did not know the disease had made such progress." Looking-glasses are not in great request at Molokai!

While I sketched him he often read his breviary. At other times we talked on subjects that interested us both, especially about the work of the Church Army, and sometimes I sang hymns to him—among others, "Brief life is here our portion," "Art thou weary, art thou languid?" and "Safe home in port." At such times the expression of his face was particularly sweet and tender. One day I asked him if he would like to send a message to Cardinal Manning. He said that it was not for such as he to send a message to so great a dignitary, but after a moment's hesitation he added, "I send my humble respects and thanks."

I need scarcely say that he gave himself no airs of martyr, saint, or hero—a humbler man I never saw. He smiled modestly and deprecatingly when I gave him the Bishop of Peterborough's message—"He won't accept the blessing of a heretic bishop, but tell him that he has my prayers, and ask him to give me his." "Does he call himself a heretic bishop?" he asked doubtfully, and I had to explain that the bishop had probably used the term playfully.

One day he told me about his early history. He was born on the 3rd of January, 1841, near Louvain in Belgium. On his nineteenth birthday his father took him to see his brother, who was then preparing for the priesthood, and he left him there to dine, while he himself went on to the neighbouring town. Young Joseph (this was his baptismal name) decided that there was the opportunity for taking the step which he had long been desiring to take, and when his father came back he told him that he wished to return home no more, and that it would be better thus to miss the pain of farewells. His father consented unwillingly, but, as he was obliged to hurry to the conveyance which was to take him home, there was no time for demur, and they parted at the station. Afterward, when all was settled, Joseph revisited his home, and received his mother's approval and blessing.

His brother was bent on going to the South Seas for mission work, and all was arranged accordingly; but at the last he was laid low with fever, and, to his bitter disappointment, forbidden to go. The impetuous Joseph asked if it would be a consolation to his brother if he were to go instead, and, receiving an affirmative answer, he wrote surreptitiously, offering himself, and begging that he might be sent, though his education was not yet finished. The students were not allowed to send out letters till they had been submitted to the Superior, but Joseph ventured to disobey.

One day, as he sat at his studies, the Superior came in, and said, with a tender reproach, "Oh, you impatient boy! you have written this letter, and you are to go."

Joseph jumped up, and ran out, and leaped about like a young colt.

"Is he crazy?" said the other students.

He worked for some years on other islands in the Pacific, but it happened that he was one day in 1873 present at the dedication of a chapel in the island of Maui, when the bishop was lamenting that it was impossible for him to send a missioner to the lepers at Molokai and still less to provide them with a pastor. He had only been able to send them occasional and temporary help. Some young priests had just arrived in Hawaii for mission work, and Father Damien instantly spoke.

"Monseigneur," said he, "here are your new missioners; one of them could take my district, and if you will be kind enough to allow it, I will go to Molokai and labour for the poor lepers whose wretched state of bodily and spiritual misfortune has often made my heart bleed within me."

His offer was accepted, and that very day, without any farewells, he embarked on a boat that was taking some cattle to the leper settlement. When he first put his foot on the island he said to himself, "Now Joseph, my boy, this is your life-work."

I did not find one person in the Sandwich Islands who had the least doubt as to leprosy being contagious, though it is possible to be exposed to the disease for years without contracting it. Father Damien told me that he had always expected that he should sooner or later become a leper, though exactly how he caught it he does not know. But it was not likely that he would escape, as he was constantly living in a polluted atmosphere, dressing the sufferers' sores, washing their bodies, visiting their death-beds, and even digging their graves. In his own words is a report of the state of things at Molokai sixteen years ago, and I think a portion will be interesting:

"By special providence of our Divine Lord, who during His public life showed a particular sympathy for the lepers, my way was traced toward Kalawao in May, 1873. I was then thirty-three years of age, enjoying a robust good health.

"About eighty of the lepers were in the hospital; the others, with a very few Kokuas (helpers), had taken their abode farther up toward the valley. They had cut down the old pandanus groves to build their houses, though a great many had nothing but branches of castor-oil trees with which to construct their small shelters. These frail frames were covered with ki leaves or with sugar-cane leaves, the best ones with pili grass. I, myself, was sheltered during several weeks under the single pandanus-tree which is preserved up to the present in the churchyard. Under such primitive roofs were living without distinction of age or sex, old or new cases, all more or less strangers one to another, those unfortunate outcasts of society. They passed their time with playing cards, hula (native dances), drinking fermented ki-root beer, home-made alcohol, and with the sequels of all this. Their clothes were far from being clean and decent, on account of the scarcity of water, which had to be brought at that time from a great distance. Many a time in fulfilling my priestly duty at their domiciles I have been compelled to run outside to breathe fresh air. To counteract the bad smell I made myself accustomed to the use of tobacco, whereupon the smell of the pipe preserved me somewhat from carrying in my clothes the noxious odour of the lepers. At that time the progress of the disease was fearful, and the rate of mortality very high. The miserable condition of the settlement gave it the name of a living graveyard, which name, I am happy to state, is to-day no longer applicable to our place."

In 1874 a "cona" (south) wind blew down most of the lepers' wretched, rotten abodes, and the poor sufferers lay shivering in the wind and rain, with clothes and blankets wet through. In a few days the grass beneath their sleeping-mats began to emit a "very unpleasant vapour." "I at once," says Father Damien, "called the attention of our sympathising agent to the fact, and very soon there arrived several schooner-loads of scantling to build solid frames with, and all lepers in distress received, on application, the necessary material for the erection of decent houses." Friends sent them rough boards and shingles and flooring. Some of the lepers had a little money, and hired carpenters. For those without means the priest, with his leper boys, did the work of erecting a good many small houses.

"I remember well that when I arrived here," again says Father Damien, "the poor people were without any medicines, with the exception of a few physics and their own native remedies. It was a common sight to see people going round with fearful ulcers, which, for the want of a few rags or a piece of lint and a little salve, were left exposed. Not only were their sores neglected but any one getting a fever, or any of the numerous ailments that lepers are heir to, was carried off for want of some simple medicine.

"Previous to my arrival here it was acknowledged and spoken of in the public papers as well as in private letters that the greatest want at Kalawao was a spiritual leader. It was owing in a great measure to this want that vice as a general rule existed instead of virtue, and degradation of the lowest type went ahead as a leader of the community. . . . When once the disease prostrated them women and children were often cast out, and had to find some other shelter. Sometimes they were laid behind a stone wall, and left there to die, and at other times a hired hand would carry them to the hospital.

"As there were so many dying people, my priestly duty toward them often gave me the opportunity to visit them at their domiciles, and although my exhortations were especially addressed to the prostrated often they would fall upon the ears of public sinners, who little by little became conscious of the consequences of their wicked lives, and began to reform, and thus, with the hope in a merciful Saviour, gave up their bad habits.

"Kindness to all, charity to the needy, a sympathising hand to the sufferers and the dying, in conjunction with a solid religious instruction to my listeners, have been my constant means to introduce moral habits among the lepers. I am happy to say that, assisted by the local administration, my labours here, which seemed to be almost in vain at the beginning, have, thanks to a kind Providence, been greatly crowned with success."

The water supply of Molokai was a pleasant subject with Father Damien. When he first arrived the lepers could only obtain water by carrying it from the gulch on their poor shoulders; they had also to take their clothes to some distance when they required washing, and it was no wonder that they lived in a very dirty state. He was much exercised about the matter, and one day, to his great joy, he was told that at the end of a valley called Waihanau there was a natural reservoir. He set out with two white men and some of his boys, and travelled up the valley till he came with delight to a nearly circular basin of most delicious ice-cold water. Its diameter was seventy-two feet by fifty-five, and not far from the bank they found, on sounding, that it was eighteen feet deep. There it lay at the foot of a high cliff, and he was informed by the natives that there had never been a drought in which this basin had dried up. He did not rest till a supply of waterpipes had been sent them, which he and all the able lepers went to work and laid. Henceforth clear sweet water has been available for all who desire to drink, to wash, or to bathe.

It was after living at the leper settlement for about ten years that Father Damien began to suspect that he was a leper. The doctors assured him that this was not the case. But he once scalded himself in his foot, and to his horror he felt no pain. Anæsthesia had begun, and soon other fatal signs appeared. One day he asked Dr. Arning, the great German doctor who was then resident in Molokai, to examine him carefully.

"I cannot bear to tell you," said Dr. Arning, "but what you say is true."

"It is no shock to me," said Damien, "for I have felt sure of it."

I may mention here that there are three kinds of leprosy. Father Damien suffered (as is often the case) both from the anæsthetic and the tubercular forms of the disease. "Whenever I preach to my people," he said, "I do not say 'my brethren,' as you do, but 'we lepers.' People pity me and think me unfortunate, but I think myself the happiest of missionaries."

Henceforth he came under the law of segregation, and journeys to the other parts of the islands were forbidden. But he worked on with the same sturdy, cheerful fortitude, accepting the will of God with gladness, undaunted by the continual reminders of his coming fate, which met him in the poor creatures around him.

"I would not be cured," he said to me, "if the price of my cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work."

A lady wrote to him, "You have given up all earthly things to serve God here and to help others, and I believe you must have now  joy that nothing can take from you and a great reward hereafter."

"Tell her," he said, with a quiet smile, "that it is true. I do  have that joy now."

He seldom talked of himself except in answer to questions, and he had always about him the simplicity of a great man—"clothed with humility."

My last letter from him is dated:

"KALAWAO, 28th February, 1889.  

"My DEAR EDWARD CLIFFORD—Your sympathising letter of 24th gives me some relief in my rather distressed condition. I try my best to carry, without much complaining and in a practical way, for my poor soul's sanctification, the long-foreseen miseries of the disease, which, after all, is a providential agent to detach the heart from all earthly affection, and prompts much the desire of a Christian soul to be united—the sooner the better—with Him who is her only life.

"During your long travelling road homeward please do not forget the narrow road. We both have to walk carefully, so as to meet together at the home of our common and eternal Father. My kind regards and prayers and good wishes for all sympathising friends. Bon voyage, mon cher ami, et au revoir au ceil—Votus tuus,

"J. Damien."  

About three weeks after writing this letter he felt sure that his end was near, and on the 28th March he took to his bed.

"You see my hands," he said. "All the wounds are healing and the crust is becoming black. You know that is a sign of death. Look at my eyes too. I have seen so many lepers die that I cannot be mistaken. Death is not far off. I should have liked to see the Bishop again, but le bon Dieu  is calling me to keep Easter with Himself. God be blessed!

"How good He is to have preserved me long enough to have two priests by my side at my last moments, and also to have the good Sisters of Charity at the Léproserie.  That has been my Nunc Dimittis.  The work of the lepers is assured, and I am no longer necessary, and so will go up yonder."

Father Wendolen said, "When you are up above, father, you will not forget those you leave orphans behind you?"

"Oh no! If I have any credit with God, I will intercede for all in the Léproserie."

"And will you, like Elijah, leave me your mantle, my father, in order that I may have your great heart?"

"Why, what would you do with it?" said the dying martyr, "it is full of leprosy."

He rallied for a little while after this, and his watchers even had a little hope that his days might be lengthened. Father Conradi, Father Wendolen, and Brother Joseph were much in his company. Brother James was his constant nurse. The Sisters from Kalaupapa visited him often, and it is good to think that the sweet placid face and gentle voice of the Mother were near him in his last days. Everybody admired his wonderful patience. He who had been so ardent, so strong, and so playful, was now powerless on his couch. He lay on the ground on a wretched mattress like the poorest leper. They had the greatest difficulty in getting him to accept a bed. "And how poorly off he was; he who had spent so much money to relieve the lepers had so forgotten himself that he had none of the comforts and scarcely the necessaries of life." Sometimes he suffered intensely; sometimes he was partly unconscious. He said that he was continually conscious of two persons being present with him. One was at the head of his bed and one at his feet. But who they were he did not say. The terrible disease had concentrated itself in his mouth and throat. As he lay there in his tiny domicile, with the roar of the sea getting fainter to his poor diseased ears, and the kind face of Brother James becoming gradually indistinct before his failing eyes, did the thought come to him that after all his work was poor, and his life half a failure? Many whom he had hoped much of had disappointed him. Not much praise had reached him. The tide of affection and sympathy from England had cheered him, but England was so far off that it seemed almost like sympathy and affection from a star. Churches were built, schools and hospitals were in working order, but there was still much to be done. He was only forty-nine, and he was dying.

"Well! God's will be done. He knows best. My work, with all its faults and failures, is in His hands, and before Easter I shall see my Saviour."

The breathing grew more laboured, the leprous eyes were clouded, the once stalwart frame was fast becoming rigid. The sound of the passing bell was heard, and the wail of the wretched lepers pierced the air. . . . The last flickering breath was breathed, and the soul of Joseph Damien de Veuster arose like a lark to God.