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MEMOIR
SAINT DAMIEN

 

JULY 16, 2015

 

JIM MCCUTCHON   

 

            I’ve met Fr. Damien.

 

            Let me tell you about Damien. He was a Belgian peasant farm boy who wanted to be a priest. When he applied to the seminary, they turned him down because he didn’t have a proper education. They didn’t know Damien. He begged, pleaded, cajoled, nagged and, finally, badgered until they gave in. They thought he would flunk out. He didn’t. Then, he wanted to go to the missions, but the powers that be said, “No. You are a loose cannon, and we need to keep you here to calm you down.” He went. In Hawaii, he eagerly volunteered to work with the lepers.

 

            When Damien got to Molokai, he found it to be an open air prison set on a small spit of land below step cliffs that sick lepers couldn’t climb. Ships dumped the unfortunates in the sea to sink or swim, and the ones who made it found that they had to sink or swim on land too. Nothing was provided, and the strongest lepers were persecuting the weaker ones. Damien went into his “pain-in-the ass mode” with the health department, and he went into his peasant mode with the lepers. He did what good writers do. He showed them instead of telling them. He took off his priestly robes, rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He and the healthy lepers built houses, barns and schools. They even found a way to build a watercourse to bring fresh water down from the plateau. Best of all from Damien’s viewpoint, they enlarged and remodeled the church.

 

            One critic called Damien a “coarse and dirty man, headstrong and bigoted”. That critic had never been to the leper colony. Well, Damien was coarse and dirty. He was a working peasant. He was headstrong too, but he was never bigoted. When he died, all of the lepers sang his praises – Catholics, Protestants and non-believers. 

 

            I started by saying that I’ve met Fr. Damien. Of course, I never met him in the flesh. He died in 1889. But I’ve been to Moloka’i and, more specifically, to Kalaupapa which is a town on the little peninsula, the open air prison. If you have been there as I have, you would say as I say that you have met Fr. Damien. He was still Fr. Damien when I was there. Sainthood status came later.

 

            I don’t know what year it was. I was a practicing physician at the time, and I planned my vacations around conventions for tax reasons. My wife and I went to a convention in Los Angeles, and during the trip planning, she said, “Why don’t we extend the trip with a visit to Hawaii? It won’t cost much, and there’s a meeting in Maui that you can go to.” So, being a compliant husband, we did just what she suggested.

 

            While I was being a good boy, attending the medical meeting, she was planning another extension – to Moloka’i.  It wasn’t easy. Both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea were erupting, and curious tourists had booked all of the helicopters and small planes. Jeanne was persistent. She was devoted to Fr. Damien. In fact, she named our youngest son, Michael Damian, after him. Anyhow, she found a pilot with a small plane. I wish I could remember his name. He didn’t want to let her charter his plane, but Jeanne was a quiet person. She was also quietly persuasive. She really wanted to go to Moloka’i. I don’t know what she told him, but he relented if she would agree that he could drop us off and come back for us. While we were in Kalaupapa, he would be pulling in tourist dollars flying over volcanoes.

 

            On the flight over from Maui, our pilot without a name told us that the usual touristy thing of going down the cliff on mules was hot, sweaty and maybe dangerous. Besides, the best way to see the leper colony was with his friend, Richard Marx. Richard wasn’t there when we landed. The pilot left, and we wondered if we had made the right choice. There we were, isolated like a couple of lepers. With no other options, we went into the little one room building that was the only structure at the airstrip. Only one man was there. It wasn’t Richard. It was an anonymous man on whom I recognized the stigmata of leprosy. I knew I had to shake his hand. I also knew that there was no danger, but he didn’t know that I wasn’t taking a chance. He beamed as only a leper can who has just been greeted with a handshake. I felt both elation for making him feel good and shame for not telling him what I knew about safety.

 

            Richard Marx is a story in himself. When he was fifteen, he realized that he was developing leprosy. Not wanting to go to the leper colony, he lied about his age and joined the Merchant Marine. Like pregnancy, you can’t hide leprosy forever, and Richard was eventually hospitalized in the Public Health Service Hospital in Honolulu. Hawaii was not a state at the time. When the authorities came to take him to Kalaupapa, his doctors ordered them off of the property of the United States and honored Richard’s request to go to Carville. I’ve been to Carville too. The hospital there doesn’t go by that name, but that’s what everybody calls it. Carville is the name of the town on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and it’s the site of the National Leprosarium. I went there with my pre-med society at Loyola of the South, and I learned a lot about Hansen’s Disease (the politically correct name) at that visit. We met lepers, learned that leprosy isn’t very contagious and that it was newly treatable with sulfones. That was in 1948.

 

            Where was I? Oh yeah, Richard drove a group of us around in his suburban, showing us the sights and telling fascinating stories of his life and of the life in Kalaupapa. He had been released from Carville after treatment and he had gone back to Kalaupapa to serve fellow lepers. When we were there, he held the title of Sheriff with his only duties being to drive around each night looking for a porch light that was on. That meant someone was sick. Primitive system? Yes, but it worked for the remaining 110 lepers who were all old and who had no place to go. Richard told us that he had met Mother Teresa at a World Leprosy convention, and he drove us to the graveyard where Fr. Damien was originally buried. (His body was later moved to his hometown in Belgium. A relic, one hand, was sent to Kalaupapa and buried in his original grave when he was canonized. Gruesome, but the Hawaiians wanted part of him there. He was much loved.)

 

            The graveyard adjoins the church of St. Philomena, a saint whose name had recently been removed from the official list because of doubts about her existence. I teased Richard about that, and he said, “That Pope. When he gets to heaven, he’ll be driving around in a Volkswagen when St. Philomena comes by in her Roll Royce.”

 

            As we were about to leave, a car drove up and two priests got out. They told us they were going to say Mass in St. Philomena’s Church, and Jeanne said, “I want to go to Mass.” Richard said, “Me too.” The non-Catholics in the group protested, but Richard told them they could go to Mass with us or wait outside. Richard was crusty – kinda like Damien.

 

            On the flight back, I told the pilot how much we liked Richard and asked if he knew that Richard had met Mother Teresa. His answer was that Richard had also spent 45 minutes with the Pope in a private interview. “Wow! Why?” “He took the papers for Fr. Damien’s canonization to Rome.” “Who prepared the papers?” “My mother and me.” No wonder Jeanne could convince him to interrupt his money making to fly us to Kalaupapa.

 

            The coincidences don’t end there. Jeanne and I were so laid back in Maui that we missed our flight out and had to go on standby. When we found a couple of seats, we weren’t together. I was seated next to a nice man who nearly spilled his coffee on me. That got us talking. When I told him about our wonderful trip to Moloka’i, he told me that our pilot was his son.

 

            There are a lot of coincidences in that story. I don’t believe in coincidence.

                    _______________________________________________

 

This memoir story was modified while at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference in June of 2016. I read it in a workshop led by Marilee Zdenek. After the workshop, she asked for a copy so she could nominate it for an award in the non-fiction category. I was pleased and proud, but I had to tell Marilee that I didn’t have a presentable copy because when I stood to read and looked at my audience, I realized that most of them had never heard of Father Damien. My lead-in thumb nail sketch of Father Damien had been completely ad lib. Her reply was, “Maybe you should do all of your writing that way.” I took it as a compliment, but there was a problem. I had to type it up so that the lead-in would be included. Then I had to get it printed – all in an hour with no printer. The hotel people helped with the printer. It didn’t win. It didn’t get honorable mention. Oh well! When I got back to my daughter’s house where I was staying, I announced my arrival this way, “Hail to the unpublished, non-award winning author.”

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