Humorist Tom Lehrer was famous in the late 70s for his witty songs about various subjects, not least among them his wonderfully funny 'Vatican Rag'. The Vatican, of course, never saw the humor in that song, but speaking of the Pontiff, the Pope has recently elevated Josef Du Veuster (otherwise known as Father Damien of Molokai) to the exalted status of sainthood. Herewith follow some secular footnotes on that topic.
Religious rosary or intellectual pessary?
Molokai gains its own Saint!
Fairly recently (October 2009), the Roman Catholic Church canonized Josef Du Veuster, more popularly known as Father Damien of Molokai. As a free thinking individual who uniformly rejects the rather primitive concept of a personalised Universal Deity that cares compassionately about certain Earth-born mammals known as homo sapiens, the whole business of people making other people ‘saints’ for their purported good deeds is certainly neither more nor less amusing than any other entertaining delusion affected by my fellow higher mammalian primates.
Molokai the island certainly doesn’t care whether some god-inspired Belgian malihini from far away came to carve notoriety out for himself on its red volcanic soil, but many of the locals certainly do. This is because the Protestant Pentecostal missionaries that descended upon the islands back in 1820 have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in converting the erstwhile pagan heathens of Hawaii from their traditional worship of the earlier naturalistic gods and have installed in their place the suspiciously handsome Caucasian figure of a very male, Anglo-Saxon, brown-haired Jesus, whose Dad they presume to be the Almighty Creator himself. Holy Smokes, what a difficult rep to live up to (of course, he didn’t, eventually dying to make an esoteric statement of some sort or another about ‘eternal life’ for beings with indisputably finite lifespans)!
Of course the Roman Catholic religion is also somewhat laughable in its inherent extremis dogma (not least because it takes itself so seriously, finding it difficult to be amused by insinuations that Saint Peter isn’t the personal public relations spokesperson for a personalised Christian 'God' that cares about the ignorant and silly concerns of human beings), but regardless of that fact, the present Roman Catholic Pontiff has finally deigned to allow Du Veuster to join that exclusive clique of humming beans who have been elevated to supreme heights of religious glory due to their assumed ability to have inspired miracles. As a preliminary step towards that end, Du Veuster was made ‘venerable’ (step one on the path to Sainthood) in 1977 and ‘beautified’ (a 2nd and subsequent preparatory status preceding full-fledged Sainthood) in 2005, while the Pope’s council of experts continued to examine his record for the purpose of determining the ‘validity’ of his supposed miracles. By 2009, they were satisfied that our man was fully qualified, granting Du Veuster his official halo and conferring upon him Saintly status. Two miracles were solemnly attributed to De Veuster, the first being the ‘miraculous’ cure of a catholic nun back in 1895 of her intestinal problems, said person having prayed to Father Damien. The second occurred just over 100 years later, when a local Hawaiian woman with severely metastisised CA experienced a full remission after praying at Du Veuster’s grave on Molokai (Note: although his body was removed for interment back in Belgium, his right hand was brought back for reburial in his original grave on Kalawao; whether or not this signifies he had a ‘hand’ in curing her remains conjecturable).
Du Veuster first arrived on Moloklai in 1873 at the age of 33, some 8 years after the then reigning Hawaiian monarch, King Kamehameha V (born HRH Lot Kapuāiwa), officially acted to quarantine and confine those afflicted with dreaded Hansen’s Disease (more popularly known as ‘Leprosy’) to a remote and virtually inaccessible North Shore peninsula jutting away from the main island mass of Molokai. The peninsula, since popularly (if somewhat erroneously) identified as Kalaupapa (although its name is properly the ‘Makanalua Peninsula’), is the result of the modest volcanic eruption on that site of an extinct shield volcano named Pu'u 'Uao (the crator itself is named Kauhako) whose lava outflows created it. On the south side of the peninsula, almost sheer pali (sea cliffs) rise nearly 2000 feet up, thus effectively isolating it completely from the rest of the island, while the ocean roils in from all other sides, hiding a precipitous drop-off to great depths (of about 2000 feet) immediately off shore. [Note: Although traditionally divided into three administrative sections, ‘Kalaupapa’, ‘Makanalua’ and ‘Kalawao’ that together constitute the distinct ‘County of Kalawao’, the whole peninsula has today become known as ‘the Kalaupapa Peninsula’ simply through common association with the famed colony for Hansen’s Disease sufferers there.] There could be fewer, more perfect settings for such splendid isolation anywhere in the islands and it was there that Kamehameha rounded up and dispatched all those in his kingdom, whether kanaka (native Hawaiian) or kama’aina (long term residents, such as were ‘haole malihini’, or’ white foreigners’), to live out the tragedy of their disease afflicted lives.
Hansen’s Disease, or ‘Mai Pake’ (the ‘Chinese Disease’) as it became known in the islands, is caused by a bacterium named Mycobacterium leprae (and Mycobacterium lepromatosis). While granular disease of the epidermal surface areas of the external body are its most obvious visible indication, it is principally a disease that afflicts the peripheral neural branches of the CNS and mucosal intima of the human respiratory tract. As the disease progresses, untreated, severe damage to the skin, vision, eyes, nerves and extremities soon occurs. Numbness and peripheral neuropathies in the limbs are most common and typically serve as a precursor warning of being afflicted with the condition. The mode of transmission is still not fully documented, amazingly, although the principal theory is that it is spread by droplet spray from the respiratory tract of a contaminated person while in the infectious stage.
Very recently, several cases of Mycobacterium leprae have been detected in individuals living in the American south, where it was determined to have come from Armadillos, one of the few non-human mammals that are known to carry the disease (due to having a core temperature of 93 degrees, quite close to that of humans). It is also known that the disease cannot be transmitted sexually, nor is it highly contagious and about 95% of all individuals have effective natural immunity to the condition. Minimum incubation period is reckoned to be about two weeks and while cases of incubation lasting over 35 years are not unknown, the mean average period of incubation is generally thought to be about three to five years. Progressive extreme disfigurement, in the absence of proper treatment, was most common back before the development of sulfone drugs in the late 1930s and in Du Veuster’s time there was no effective treatment other than various superficial symptomatic therapies. As the disease gained a firm hold on its host, the effects could be most disturbing and by all early accounts, to see a young and beautiful woman gradually turned into a hideous husk of disfiguring skins lesions was tragic beyond most people’s imagining. And yet there was no mercy accorded to anyone found to have the disease, beautiful or plain. Several high ranking members of the Hawaiian Ali’I (royalty) with the disease were also committed and there are a great number of extremely sad accounts of life there by inmates to be found today, by anyone interested in researching the subject in some depth.
Leprosy is an ancient affliction, dating back at least 4000 or more years. Over the centuries a number of remedies were tried, none of which had any more than a superficial and fleeting relief of some symptoms (the treatment of leprosy with a tincture of mercury was one of the more extreme approaches, following the example of a popular treatment course for syphilis). Of interest is the fact that, due to ancient ignorance, attended by the much feared nature of the disease, the ‘leprosy’ that is so clearly described in scripture from the Christian Bible was not the specific entity we know today as Hansen’s Disease. In biblical times just about every severe skin condition of all types was lumped under that collective catch-all term (including conditions like Shingles, Smallpox, Eczema, Psoriasis and so forth) and thus just about anyone identified as having highly visible skin lesion abnormalities was shunned and regarded as a ‘leper’.
Today, with the advent of multi-drug therapeutic treatments (a trifecta regimen of rifampicin, dapsone and clofazimine) similar in approach to that used for treatment of HIV and AIDS, Hansen’s Disease is no longer the terror-inspiring condition it was historically regarded as being and the condition may now be quite effectively controlled so as to arrest any subsequent development, once diagnosis has been made and treatment begun. Of interest is the fact that those with the disease are only capable of spreading the bacterium during an acute infectious stage and although thereafter afflicted, do not spread the disease.
Back in the mid to late 1800s, however, the mere thought of the condition inspired horror among most people and the reaction to it in the islands was both highly emotional and widespread. It is thought that Hansen’s Disease originally came to from East Asia with Chinese laborers who had been brought to Hawaii on commercial sailing ships plying the Pacific trading routes, thus the term ‘Mai Pake’ (‘Pake’ is also the local Hawaiian pidgin term for a person of Chinese ancestry). By 1860, the indigenous Hawaiian peoples were already threatened by near-extinction, owing to wides-spread depredations caused by outside (foreign) diseases and as alarm spread in the islands over the prevalence of the condition, combined with complete ignorance of its method of transmission, it was felt that the best solution for dealing with the problem was immediate isolation of any and all who were felt to have the disease. In passing his edict of 1865, Kamehameha V was remorseless in making it absolutely mandatory for all thus identified, regardless of rank, status, or social privilege to be rounded up and transported to the wildly isolated Makanalua colony, where they would often be literally thrown off the boat close to shore (by callous, often drunk steamer crews) to swim to land by themselves (presumably those who could not, simply drowned).
At the onset of the colony, a rough settlement was established on the slightly less protected eastern shore of the peninsula and named the Kalawao settlement. The site had been selected principally due to it's having accessible water (rain runoff from the Pali canyons about a mile distant, that had to be hand-carried to the site), despite lacking suitable shores for a landing facility. This is where Du Veuster set foot when he himself landed in 1873 and it is where he initially went about restoring some form of order in the at that time very wild, desperate and chaotic community. Prior to his arrival, the sheer terror and human despair that the disease caused, combined with a severe lack of food and facilities, had resulted in an almost complete absence of laws, order, and community structure, despite the half-competent ministrations of various appointed 'supervisors' appointed by the Royal Board of Health. Contemporary descriptions make it clear that the strong ruled with a violent remorselessness and the weak suffered greatly as a result. This was not as much due to intentional royal neglect as to the economic constraints (the Royal Treasury was continually depleted)of the monarchy's Royal Board of Health and also to the sheer demands of the colony as it rapidly filled up with the afflicted. When Du Veuster arrived, there were already approximately 816 residents (there would be almost 8000 total sent to the colony between 1866 and 1969). Although the King ordered basic supplies of food and other minimal supplies to be provided to the inhabitants, medical treatment, adequate housing and more comprehensive support facilities were not forthcoming; the scene, by all accounts upon his arrival, was shocking and disturbing to say the very least.
Du Veuster therefore set about immediately trying to establish some sort of order among the inhabitants, governing by instituting basic laws of conduct that could be enforced. Farms were organized and schools for the many children (a great number who had been essentially orphaned by forcible separation from their healthy parents) were set up. Du Veuster also consecrated the colony’s first religious house of worship at Kalawao, the Saint Philomena Parish Church (Roman Catholic, of course). In addition to his self assumed priestly duties, he additionally took charge of caring for the medical treatment of the settlement’s members and became a source of moral strength and spiritual guidance they could avail for all their needs. There doesn’t seem to be much question that although the settlement was chaotic prior to his arrival, his presence served to induce substantial order, even bringing hope and inspiration to many there that had long been needed. [Note: Although Du Veuster had originally volunteered for the Molokai mission as one of four such priests who were to rotate their duties at the colony, he elected to remain and did so with the support of those he had helped and ministered to.]
Somewhat after the Kalawao colony had been established, it was decided to relocate the colony to the western shore of the peninsula, since the Kalaupapa site (originally an ancient Hawaiian fishing village) was drier and enjoyed more sun than the original windward Kalawao site, which, snugged in close to the Pali, lost all its direct sunlight by about 3PM each afternoon (thereby rendering it measureably colder and more inhospitable than Kalaupapa). By that time more than 1100 forcibly relocated HD sufferers inhabited the peninsula. In the period stretching roughly from 1888 to 1902, a home for boys was constructed in Kalawao (the Baldwin Home for Boys) and a similar facility for girls (the Bishop Home for Girls) was built at the Kalaupapa site. Eventually the entire colony gradually abandoned the original Kalawao site for Kalaupapa's more hospitable climate.
Given his close daily contact with the Kalaupapa inmates, it is not at all surprising that Du Veuester contracted the disease, which was first revealed when in 1884 (11 years after his arrival) he accidentally put his foot into scalding water and failed to register any sensation of pain. Submitting himself to symptomatic treatments that did little more than alleviate some discomfort, Du Veuster continued to minister to the needs of the colony as his own disease progressed with some rapidity. As his health began to fail in the last years of his life, he was joined by four other individuals who continued much of his work in the colony. Notable among these was Mother Marianne Cope, Superior of a Franciscan hospital in New York and Ira J. Dutton, a Civil war officer whose tragic war and personal experiences had brought about a philosophical epiphany and a desire to help others. Two others included a Belgian priest (Louis Conrardy, who became a pastor to the colony’s residents) and a male nurse from Chicago (James Sinnett), the latter tending to Du Veuster as his condition deteriorated. Mother Marianne Cope helped set up and operate a hospital facility in the Kalaupapa segment of the peninsula (on the western shore), due to her experience with similar works, and eventually the majority of the settlement clustered in that area, leaving the peninsula’s original Kalawao shore (eastern shore) settlement.
When Du Veuster finally died from the ravages of his disease in 1889 he was only 49 years old. His body was interred next to the church he had built at Kalawao (the first of several he had had constructed by the time of his death, although the others are located along the island’s east shore and are somewhat removed from the isolated peninsula). In 1936 Du Veuster’s remains were disinterred and transported to his native Belgium, although as mentioned earlier, sometime later his right hand was returned to the site of his original burial.
The story of the Kalaupapa colony’s continued operation after Du Veuster’s death is a fascinating history all in and of itself, largely due to the ministrations of Mother Marianne and ‘Brother Joseph' Dutton (although Dutton was not under any holy order, he was addressed by the honorific ‘brother’ out of respect for his selfless work as a lay brother). Immediately after Du Veuster’s death, however, a very bitter and contentious argument arose over the merit of the priest’s life and work by leading figures in Honolulu. Stemming mainly from the Presbyterian and Congregational missionary clerics on the islands, comments in particular from a Reverend C.M. Hyde (who castigated him posthumously for being a ‘dirty, coarse individual, among other things) provoked a storm of reactive controversy both for and against Du Veuster’s work at Kalaupapa.
Interestingly, given the acrimonious and dogmatic schism that has historically existed between the Protestant and Catholic Christian faiths since their inceptions, there pre-existed much resentment among the original Protestants missionaries against Roman Catholic efforts to gain a foothold following in the Hawaiian Islands. From the time of their arrival in 1920, the Calvinist missionaries had worked assiduously not only to save the native heathens from their perceived idolatry but to also keep the Roman Catholic 'Papists' off the islands as well, regarding all of Hawaii and its inhabitants as their spiritually proprietary turf. As a consequence, the Catholic Church constantly found itself waging a covert religious battle with the Protestant Pentecostals. With the arrival of Du Veuster on Kalaupapa, the Roman Catholic Church had (not entirely unselfishly) perceived an ideal opportunity to strengthen its weak following and that association with Molokai has continued to this day, re-enforced most recently by Du Veuster’s elevation to sainthood and all the resulting publicity surrounding it.
Today, the former colony on Kalaupapa for those afflicted with Hansen’s Disease continues to exist, but principally as a historic site maintained by the State of Hawaii (with the help of the US Federal Government). Only those who were original inhabitants may continue to live there, but over the years many who underwent successful treatment elected to leave (once the quarantine had been lifted) and of course many have passed on, as well. At present there are only a handful of patients left at Kalaupapa, most being very old, assisted by a small contingent of staff who tend to their needs and maintain the colony’s physical grounds. Tours of the area may be arranged using one of three mrthods: by mule ride down the very steep switchbacks of the Pali (sea cliffs), on foot, or by helicopter. Unless invited by a resuident, all visitors must arrange their visit beforehand and receive permission from the Kalaupapa (Kalawao County Sheriff) authorities. As far as tours go, a visit to Kalaupapa is quite a memorable experience, since most of the former buildings and structures have been maintained, and most are viewable. The mule ride down the Pali is certainly spectacular, since the drop-off is rather dramatic and the trail begins almost a full 3000 feet above the peninsula below. Regardless of the extreme angle of the Pali, the mules are quite sure-footed and there is very little real danger, despite the remarkable view that greets those on mule-back as the zig-zagged trail winds its way downwards on a path barely wide enough for one-way foot traffic.
Although now completely abandoned, there are still a few remnants of the original Kalawao settlement site to be seen on the eastern shore of the colony. In 1989, Hawaii was granted official status as a US territory, after the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown by powerful descendents of the missionaries who had since come into prominance as the upper class wealthy of Hawaii. Part of that settlement soon became associated with the US Public Health Service, for in the early 1900s funds were granted by the US Federal Government for the establishment of a Public Health Service laboratory at Kalawao to study leprosy, subsequent to a proposal submitted by the president of the Hawaii Territorial Board of Health (Dr. Charles Cooper). President Theodore Roosevelt, acting upon this proposal in 1904, recommended to Congress that a research facility to study Hansen’s Disease be built on a one square mile parcel of the peninsula’s east shore under the steep Pali cliffs and next to the existing ‘Baldwin Home’ for (HD afflicted) boys. Accordingly, the facility was formally established in late December of 1909 and continued to investigate the mysteries of Mycobacterium leprae until the lab was officially closed in August of 1913. Consisting of three separate adjunctive areas, the USPHS compound included several residence buildings (separated from the patients by a double row security fence), an executive building and the research clinic/hospital itself. Given the confining restrictions levied upon those who agreed to participate in the research (they had to live at the facility, segregated from their friends and families in Kalaupapa), not many of the Kalaupapa sufferers volunteered for the studies and a total of nine patients was the most the facility ever had as participants in its studies of the disease. Eventually all of the nine elected to return to the relative comfort of their familiar surroundings at Kalaupapa and when the last patient left, the facility was officially closed. In his fascinating paper on the station (titled ‘The Public Health Service Leprosy Investigation Station on Molokai, Hawaii, 1909-13…an Opportunity Lost’), author Jerrold M. Michael advances the argument that although the idea was benevolently conceived and logistically well executed, it must eventually be regarded as a misuse of funds and resources for several reasons, not least among them being a lack of trust by the locals that was never overcome and a profound lack of understanding of the Hawaiian culture by the western ‘haole’ culture that initiated and brought the project to fruition.
Interestingly enough, the articulate wife (Emma Gibson) of one of the station’s resident physicians and an amazingly formidable woman on her own part, wrote a small but fascinating book about her experiences at the peninsula’s Leprosy Research Station (during its early and brief 1900s period of operation) that was eventually published privately in 1957. The book, titled ‘Under the Cliffs of Molokai’, is a marvelously revealing account of what it was like to live on the islands at the turn of the century as a woman, to be a wife and mother and experience the wildly remote isolation of that exposed outthrust of Molokaiian lava that was the Makanalua Peninsula site of Du Veuster’s colony. I stumbled across a rare copy of her book quite by accident recently that must have belonged to her personally (or given by her to a close friend), since its dust jacket photograph has a small inked-in circle around a barely visible building under the Pali that is accompanied by the simple hand written sentence “..this is where I lived”. A photograph taken of her inside the book is also remarked upon with a hand written “…this is what I looked like while we lived there” and it shows a very attractive young woman in her mid-20s with the clear look of intelligence and competence about her. Her family, coincidentally, came from Berkeley, California, my own spiritual home, and I believe her descendents remain there today on Hillegass Street, these many decades later.
Anyone who today desires to understand the remarkable Island of Molokai must first have a working understanding of the immense human tragedy that was the colony at Kalaupapa, a tragedy that has since become synonymous with Josef Du Veuster (in his life’s work as ‘Father Damien of Molokai’) and of its importance to the island’s more recent history (from the mid-1800s onward). The entire story, however a large share Du Vuester played in it, is far broader and more far-reaching than all the recent attgention paid to Du Veuster would at first suggest.
Due to a number of influences, all of which have been fairly thoroughly explored in my preceding articles on Molokai, the island, almost alone among its close neighbor islands, has managed to escape total ruination at the hands of malihini (foreigner) developers and speculators. Having managed to almost totally dismember and destroy the last vestiges of traditional Hawaiian culture on Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Lanai and (the Big Island of) Hawaii, substituting in their place costly luxury escape destinations for the wealthy and well-to-do to take their vacations, there is hardly any remnant of the original native Hawaii left to see on them. Rampant foreign real estate speculations have, up until the recent economic crash of the last decade, resulted in land prices being driven through the roof, in local families being forced to face the unhappy decision of either staying put or selling out (knowing that they can never return) and a whole modern generation of disenfranchised native Hawaiians who are now homeless and forced to camp out in tents on beaches. Concurrent with that most egregious capitalist transformation, the worst aspects of fast paced and highly superficial mainland ‘pop culture’ have also been brought to the islands and instilled in Hawaiians with the same evangelical enthusiasm employed by the original missionaries who brought the Caucasian Jesus to them. Only quiet, relaxed and almost ‘sleepy’ Molokai has survived the onslaught of that culture-clash to remain a marvelously unique throwback to the kinder, slower and simpler times that originally characterised ‘Old Hawaii’.
On an island measuring roughly 30 miles by 10 and with a total population of less than 8,000 people (it is estimated), although blessed by its having been overlooked and largely by-passed by greedy developers, the people of Molokai have undeniably suffered from a perpetually impoverished economy. Once the last of the sugarcane and pineapple plantations that were its principal means of economic income closed in the late 1980s, Molokai has been hard pressed to simultaneously resist the threat of ruinous over-development and establish an economic foundation upon which to support its local population. Clearly, in today’s rapidly developing and changing world, you can’t have a booming economy and beneficial environmental compliance at the same time, in equal proportion. Paradise adorned with all the trappings of modern mainland culture would hardly retain the very charm and peacefulness that has so much reflected the island’s charm and quiet character in past decades, but no matter how lovely it is, an island without the means to support its people adequately is faced with some serious problems indeed. A few attempts have been made to selectively adopt certain solutions involving environmentally friendly proposals for establishing some sort of self-sustaining economic development (foremost among these a plan for wind generated energy farms and various agricultural proposals), but for the most part Molokai has remained economically depressed to a significantly greater extent than the neighboring islands. Unemployment on Molokai, once all the artificial statistical qualifiers have been pared away, remains consistently at or about 20+%. When the Molokai Ranch operations ceased to operate on the island several years ago, it seemed the final dreadful blow to an already depressing economic status quo.
Then very recently (to some, I do not doubt, almost as if in answer to their heart-felt prayers) the Roman Catholic Church finally moved to elect Kalaupapa’s Du Veuster to full-fledged sainthood. All ‘bah, humbug’ aspersions of religious mumbo-jumbo superstitions of ‘faith’ aside, the matter has raised some interesting, if slightly curious questions associated with Du Veuster’s newly acquired exalted status among the Roman Catholic faithful, for on the one hand there is no doubt that Du Veuster the man deserves immense credit for his personal sacrifices made in the name of unfortunates on Kalaupapa, but there are also hard, cold and more modern economic motives to reflect further upon, as well. As anyone who has had any association with the Roman Catholic Church is likely well aware, saints are good business because they can be used to sell things associated with their memory (souvenir medals, plaques, relics, pamphlets, books, knickknacks, figurines, the list of ‘sellable’ material items is virtually endless). Then there are visits by the faithful to consider, since religious pilgrims will come, visit, spend some money, stay in local accommodations and otherwise spread a bit of their wealth about in the process of adulating their supposed ‘saint’.
Up until recently, the total extent of this activity consisted of a small handful of books written about the colony and a few about Du Veuster himself, as well as one or two DVD movies that were made about his life. Now I note an increasing groundswell of kitschy trinkets appearing (on eBay, among other similar venues) such as religious medals bearing the new ‘saint’s’ likeness, etc. Given the trash-consciousness mentality that passes for daily culcha among so many these days, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we didn’t eventually see a new reality TV show appear titled ‘Leper Colony: The Survivor’, 'Dancing with the Lepers', or perhaps ‘Lepers Got Talent!', moderated by some bearded Hollywood actor (Kevin Costner?) who bears a passing resemblance to Du Veuster himself. No matter how 'sacred' something may be, there seems to never be a shortage of those philistine souls who would squeeze profit from it.
As might be suspected, there are a great many who appear quite ready to hop on the Du Veuster bandwagon to carve out some personal gain from the celebration of his memory, but more than likely the only ones actually on the island who will benefit from the election of Molokai’s favorite malihini to Catholic ‘hall of fame’ status will be a few Molokaiians running bed & breakfast inns, or perhaps the Hotel Molokai, since transportation options to the island remains modest and there really aren’t many places to stay on it for tourists (now that the Sheraton Kaluakoi Hotel on the west end is long gone). While it is conceivable that there will be a small upsurge of interest among the Catholic faithful in visiting Du Veuster’s old stomping grounds at Kalaupapa, I’d venture that the triple whammy imposed by radically increasing airline fares, gas prices and related travel expenses will act to effectively curtail most of that anticipated economic activity. With the cost of oil unlikely to drop ever again to any great degree, it would appear as if this will constitute a persistent status quo without significant change for the foreseeable years to come.
Be all that as it may, and to retreat briefly from the greater subject of Kalaupapa’s legitimate place in history, I personally feel that all the religious hype and hubbub associated with canonising Du Veuster is misplaced. Du Veuster was an ordinary human being who simply did an extraordinary and very human thing: he dedicated his life to others fully mindful of the fact that by so doing he was placing his own health and life in dire jeopardy. From my standpoint that doesn’t make him worthy of hysterical religious veneration; he was simply doing with his life what he felt best, for whatever motivations he had in the depths of his own personal inner consciousness. Every one of us does this to varying degrees in our own lives and there’s nothing saintly or miraculous about the process at all (do we need to make a soldier who shields his fellow troops from a grenade with his own body a saint? After all, he's giving up his life for others, too). We all may be called upon to decide what is worth such extreme personal sacrifice (or not, since most don’t) and he did that as any ordinary human male mammal would, instinctively. It is certainly appropriate and highly commendable to secularly laud the acts and perpetuate the memory of a remarkably selfless individual like Du Veuster in our midst, but to make that person a ‘saint’ (with all the religious baggage attending that mystical status, with its supposed ‘miracles’) is simply misconceived ignorance, arising from superstitious religious nonsense. That, however, is what religion is all about, sadly enough: believing in mysterious and fanciful chimeric powers that transcend our ordinary mortal fate. The fact that those who ‘believe’ far outnumber those who do not is irrelevant (I’m tempted to observe that this might possibly be interpreted as there being far fewer people who use their powers to reason appropriately, than those who do not or cannot). At any rate, I’ve always been willing to grudgingly tolerate mass expressions of superstitious ignorance and intellectual myopia, even if it creates tremendous irritation for me sometimes; after all, what choice do any of us have, aside from expressing our opinions on such subjects?
Regardless of what one thinks about religion and its ever-strange (and frequently disturbing) effects on simple-minded individuals who demonstrate a refined lack of clarity in reasoning, it will be quite interesting to see what the long term effect of Du Veuster’s sainthood will have on the island of Molokai. I hope if there is one, that it will be a positive and collectively beneficial experience for local Molokaiians and not comprise a further depredation of the uniquely simple and old fashioned character that this beautiful island has been so famously noted for, for so long!
Stripped of all its heavy overtones of religious faith, the story of Molokai's Kalaupapa colony for sufferers of Hansen's Disease is nontheless a monumental epic that epitomises both the supreme ignorance and the sublime intelligence that our human species is capable of. Its heroes and heroines were, when all the hype has been carefully divested, were merely remarkably dedicated, but ordinary individuals who made a conscious choice to help others of their kind, regardless of the consequences to their own health and safety. For that alone, they deserve the highest secular praise and merit.
In the end, when contemplating such things as human ‘saints’, I find it never hurts to bear in mind Du Veuster’s alleged observation that ‘Individuals don’t create history. History creates individuals.’
Aloha mai e, Molokai! Malama pono (do right, think right, act right).
The subject of Kalaupapa, Hawaii's colony for lepers on the island of Molokai's famously rugged and isolated northcoast, is usually focused on the role Christian religion (specifically the Roman Catholic Church) has played there, centered on the person of Josef Du Veuster, who has otherwise become known to posterity as 'Father Damien of Molokai'. Far too seldom is the deeper and highly personal human tragedy of Hansen's Disease explored in secular modern literature. For those who wish to learn how Hansen's Disease more intimately affected those who suffered from it for so many decades, I would strongly suggest author Alan Brennert's poignantly written work of historical fiction titled 'MOLOKAI'. Published in 2003, it tells the story of a 7 year old Hawaiian girl who is sent to the colony and grows to womanhood there. A work of historical fiction, it is based upon an exceptional body of research Brennert has carried out on the disease, the island and more recent Hawaiian culture (1850-1931). In it one learns of such fascinating things as the ineradicable bias that those with Hansen's Disease suffered, even after they were 'cured'. One of the characters in the book is a 'Mahu', a Hawaiian person who is transgendered. The main character (Rachel) finds release from the woes and worries of her life in surfing off Kaulaupapa's Papaloa Beach and joins the small group of inmates who agree to be studied at the Kalawao USPHS Leprosy Research Station. These are just three small details that help illustrate the bredth of this meticulously rendered work on a somewhat obscure aspect of modern (1820 to the present) Hawaiian history. The book also has the added benefit of being a tremendously well written, enjoyable and highly engaging read that I recommend without reservation to anyone who wishes to learn more about life in the the post-Damien Molokai colony. It may be acquired new for a very modest price and I personally consider it to be among the best books I have ever read on island culture for its many, many insights and inherent richness.
Another excellently documented & researched book about the Hansen's Disease Leprosium at Kalaupapa that I would strongly recommend is author John Tayman's 'THE COLONY' (published in 2006); Tayman's book makes exhaustive use of a broad range of documentary evidence pertaining to the settlement and constitutes one of the best possible sources of factual information about day-to-day life at Kalaupapa and the circumstances peripheral to it. From its pages, there is little left not to know about the overall history of that terribly sad place on Molokai's north shore, and I consider it one of the best documentaries yet written about the place.