Damien of Molokai

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

October 12, 2009


(Fr. Peter Daly recounts a play about Damien of Molokai on the day of Damien’s canonization and how it inspires a new generation..)


            In the dark of our parish theater, people could not see the tears rolling down my face. They could not see my chin quivering as actor Reid Sasser made Fr. Damien of Molokai come alive for us in Aldyth Morris’ play. It was the same day that Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict in Rome.

            But I was not the only one crying. I could hear sniffles. I could see people reaching for hankies. I could hear them blowing their noses.

            Morris’ play, “Damien”, is a powerful script.  The one man show lays out the life of Joseph de Veuster, a Flemish farm boy who went half way round the world to Hawaii in the 19th century and died serving the lepers on the island of Molokai.

            The most beautiful line, for me, is when Damien explains what a vocation is. He says, “If we are lucky, we get a call, within a call. We find our niche.” He found his niche with the lepers of Molokai.  When he saw them for the first time from the boat, fingers and toes missing, faces eaten away by disease he said, “I knew I must go and be their priest.”

            Reid Sasser’s presentation of Morris’ play was a chance for me to introduce another generation to a Damien, the holy man of Hawaii, just as I met him 50 years ago.  

            When I was a kid I saw a film about Damien. The nuns showed it to our grade school. In the 1950s it was rare treat to see a movie in school. Assembled in the school gym, we watched a grainy black and white film based on the book by John Farrow, “Damien, the Leper.”

            Those images are still imprinted on my mind. I was shocked that leprosy existed in the real world, not just in the Bible.

            Damien is a “boy’s saint.” He is not some delicate figure, hidden away in a cloister. He is in the battle for Christ.  Like most men, he had a temper. But he put it to good use for the lepers. Jesus had a temper too.  

            Damien was a fighter. He battled bishop and bureaucrat for his leper friends. I loved that he built stuff like chapels, and a hospital, houses and a water system. He dug graves for the lepers. I said to myself, “That is what I want to do, be a priest who helps people.”

            Ultimately Damien took on the wounds of Christ in the sores of a leper.  He had a stigmata born acts of love and service.

            After I saw that film, I went out and bought the book with my grass cutting money. The first book I ever bought.  I paid 65 cents for the Image paperback.  

            Years later, I went to Hawaii to see my high school friend, Charlie Connor, who was stationed there in the Navy. Charlie suggested we go to Molokai. We rode mules down the steep cliffs to the peninsula of Kalaupapa. Escape by land or by sea from that place was almost impossible for the lepers.

            We got a tour of the leper settlement by Richard Marx, the “sheriff” of Kalaupapa. He was a leper himself. He was missing some fingers. In his voice you could hear that Damien was a living presence. The lepers of Molokai still mourn that Damien’s body was taken back to Belgium in the 1930s.  

            People need heroes.

            Damien is one of mine.

            I hope in that theater there was another boy thinking, “I want to be a priest like that.”