Leper Priest of Moloka'i: The Father Damien Story

Article excerpt

Leper Priest of Moloka'i: The Father Damien Story. By Richard Stewart. (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. 2000. Pp. ix, 444. $49.00 clothbound; $24.95 paperback.)

Blessed Damien DeVeuster of Moloka'i (1840-1889) attracted the attention of authors even in his own lifetime. Charles Warren Stoddard published The Lepers of Moloka'i in 1885, and its success, along with numerous letters and articles about the heroic Belgian priest who had dedicated his life to the lepers of the Hawaiian islands, ensured that the name of Father Damien was known throughout Europe and the Americas. Many popular accounts of Damien's life were published in the twentieth century, prior to his beatification by Pope John Paul II on June 4,1995. The present work, authored by a medical researcher and retired professor of the Medical College of Wisconsin, offers a unique perspective on the story of a man who attended to the spiritual and physical needs of individuals cut off from most forms of spiritual and social interaction.

The "disease that tears families apart"-that was the Hawaiian term for leprosy. Forcibly removed from their relatives and communities, and transported to the desolate peninsula of Moloka'i, the lepers of the colony that Father Damien first encountered in 1873 were a community in need of social, medical, and spiritual ministration. It was a flock to whom he devoted the next sixteen years of his life: tending their souls, dressing their repellent sores, constructing their dwellings and churches, and burying their dead in decent coffins that would resist the depredations of the island's wild pigs.

One strength of Stewart's impressive book is that it is solidly based on archival resources found in Damien's Congregation of the Sacred Hearts in Belgium, the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, New York (who worked with him on Moloka'i), and numerous other collections. Throughout Leper Priest, these resources are not only skillfully utilized to present a balanced picture of Father Damien and his acquaintances, but are also effectively interpreted in the light of Hawaiian history and the medical reality of leprosy itself. …