Robert Louis Stevenson’s Remarkable Defense of St. Damien of Molokai

No less than the novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson gives us a beautiful account of the virtues of the saint we celebrate on Oct. 11, St. Damien of Molokai.

Well, beautiful in a harsh way.

Joseph de Veuster, the Belgian who would become Father Damien, was born at Tremelo, Belgium, in 1840. He was supposed to be in charge of the family business when his brother entered religious life, but Damien entered religious life too. He was ordained in 1864 and sent to Hawaii. When the Hawaiian government addressed leprosy by sending sufferers to a colony, the bishop  asked for volunteers to serve them. Damien was the first to go, and decided to live the rest of his days with the lepers.

We get an intimation of leprosy in the Bible; Damien saw its horrific consequences every day. The leper colony was a chaos where sin prevailed, until he came preaching — and more importantly, practicing — love.

When the Reverend C.M. Hyde of Honolulu wrote a high-sounding critique of the rough aspects of St. Damien of Molokai’s character that aught the attention of the author of Jekyll and Hyde (the story was already published and the name used for the fictional is not a reference to the Hawaiian Congregationalist. Stevenson wrote back in a scathing reply in 1890.

For the feast of St. Damien of Molokai, here are some key passages.

Hyde had called Damien a “coarse” man.

“It is very possible,” Stevenson replies. “You make us sorry for the lepers, who had only a coarse old peasant for their friend and father. But you, who were so refined, why were you not there, to cheer them with the lights of culture? Or may I remind you that we have some reason to doubt if John the Baptist were genteel; and in the case of Peter, on whose career you doubtless dwell approvingly in the pulpit, no doubt at all he was a ‘coarse, headstrong’ fisherman! Yet even in our Protestant Bibles Peter is called Saint.”

Hyde called Damien a “dirty” man.

Replies Stevenson: “He was. Think of the poor lepers annoyed with this dirty comrade! But the clean Dr. Hyde was at his food in a fine house.”

Hyde called Damien “headstrong.”

“I believe you are right again; and I thank God for his strong head and heart,” said Stevenson.

Hyde called Damien “bigoted.”

“I am not fond of bigots myself, because they are not fond of me. But what is meant by bigotry, that we should regard it as a blemish in a priest? Damien believed his own religion with the simplicity of a peasant or a child; as I would I could suppose that you do. For this, I wonder at him some way off; and had that been his only character, should have avoided him in life. But the point of interest in Damien, which has caused him to be so much talked about and made him at last the subject of your pen and mine, 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.

Hyde claimed Damien “was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders.”

“Is this a misreading? Or do you really mean the words for blame? I have heard Christ, in the pulpits of our Church, held up for imitation on the ground that His sacrifice was voluntary. Does Dr. Hyde think otherwise?” asked Stevenson.

Last, Stevenson addresses Hyde’s rumor-mongering about Damien.

“How do you know that? Is this the nature of the conversation in that house on Beretania Street which the cabman envied, driving past? — racy details of the misconduct of the poor peasant priest, toiling under the cliffs of Molokai?

“Many have visited the station before me; they seem not to have heard the rumor. When I was there I heard many shocking tales, for my informants were men speaking with the plainness of the laity; and I heard plenty of complaints of Damien. Why was this never mentioned? And how came it to you in the retirement of your clerical parlor?”

Read the entire letter here, and the more edifying account of Pope Benedict XVI giving his canonization homily here.

Image: William Brigham Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Benedictine College’s mission can Transform Culture in America by modeling community in an age of incivility, spreading faith in an age of hopelessness, and committing to scholarship in a “post-truth” era. The Ex Corde Center for Catholic Media creates video and other media content to promote positive messages of faith, hope, and love while providing students with the tools, experiences, and contacts they need to enter the 21st century media world as effective communicators. Learn about the Ex Corde media fellows program.