BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
THE PROPHESY OF ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON: Damien of Molokai: The Leper Saint
, October 16, 2010
The father of all who love goodness
THE PROPHESY OF ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON:
Damien of Molokai: The Leper Saint
(Dublin: A Little Book Company)
Paperback: 90 pages, plus
colour illustrations and photos
Rec. price: AUD$15.00
Reviewed by John Ballantyne
The heroic life of Father Damien of Molokai (1840-1889), the leper saint, is universally acknowledged.
Yet, on his death, a Presbyterian minister of Honolulu, Rev. Dr C.M. Hyde, tried to destroy the Catholic priest's reputation by alleging that he was "no saintly philanthropist". In an open letter to a fellow pastor, published in 1889 in the Sydney Presbyterian, Hyde described Damien as "a coarse, dirty, headstrong bigot - not a pure man in his relations with women", a man whose own leprosy was "due to his vices and carelessness".
These accusations attracted a swift response from another Presbyterian, Robert Louis Stevenson, the famed Scottish author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped, who happened to be in Sydney after having visited the late Fr Damien's colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. He accused Hyde of unjustly maligning a heroic man who, Stevenson predicted, would one day be recognised as a saint.
The Prophesy of Robert Louis Stevenson falls into four parts.
The first is a 28-page foreword by the book's editor Don Mullan, who summarises Fr Damien's life and rightly hails him as "a magnet of mercy and goodness".
The Belgian-born Damien arrived in Hawaii in 1864, and in 1873 was the first priest to volunteer to serve a colony of lepers who had been banished by the Honolulu government to a secluded location on the northern side of the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
He was initially physically repulsed by the stench of disease and infection among the lepers, and suffered loneliness and depression. Yet he manfully served his charges, cleaning their festering wounds and tenderly loving them.
Damien's arrival on Molokai marked a turning point in the secluded colony. He immediately set about finding useful employment for the residents. He established workshops and schools, and even bands of musicians to perform at concerts and religious ceremonies. The morale of the island was transformed.
In 1888, an Englishman Edward Clifford visited Molokai "expecting to find it scarcely less dreadful than hell itself", but was surprised instead to encounter "the cheerful people, the lovely landscapes, and comparatively painless life".
Long before Damien succumbed to leprosy himself, he identified with the sufferers he served. From early on in his ministry he was accustomed in his preaching to use the phrase, not "my brethren", but "we lepers". He died aged 49.
This book's 15-page introduction, by retired Melbourne priest Rev. F.E. Burns, sets the scene for the Hyde-Stevenson exchange.
Stevenson's letter is then reproduced in its entirety. He described disembarking at Molokai: "As the boat drew but a little nearer ... you beheld the stairs crowded with abominable deformations of our common manhood, and saw yourself landing in the midst of such a population as only now and then surrounds us in the horror of a nightmare."
The famous author concluded his defence of Fr Damien (who was finally canonised in 2008) by rebuking Rev. Hyde with the stinging words: "The man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father ... and the father of all who love goodness; and he was your father too, if God had given you grace to see it."
This inspiring and beautifully illustrated book will introduce a new generation of readers to the remarkable life of Father Damien. The gracious, ecumenical spirit of this book, published in Dublin, is nicely rounded off with a fitting afterword by Rev. Keith Drury, a Presbyterian minister and artist from Belfast.