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Friday, October 09, 2009

Father Damien Sainthood

Fr. Damien will be elevated to sainthood this week, an event that has everybody in Hawaii excited. You can read the reactions here. Nobody is celebrating more than the remaining residents of Kalaupapa, the infamous leper colony of Molokai.

The history of leprosy and the policy of quarantine that brought Damien to Hawaii is sad and tragic. A recent book by John Tayman documents that horrible experiment in social engineering.

The Colony begins with a man and his family in a desperate flight for freedom that led to a military standoff in the mountains of Kauai. The man's crime? He had leprosy. Leprosy, now known as Hansen's Disease, reached the islands in the 1860s and the government responded in Biblical fashion: anyone suffering from the disease was pronounced "utterly unclean" and exiled to a peninsula on the island of Molokai.

The peninsula, Kalaupapa, was bounded at one end by sea cliffs so high and steep that goats fell off. It jutted out like an overturned flat iron into seas so rough that ships couldn't land. Instead, the exiles were rowed close to shore and tossed overboard with their belongings and forced to swim to the rocks. When they got there, they were greeted with the chilling words, "In this place there is no law." They had been tracked by bounty hunters, taken from their families, and forced to this place where all manner of crime and brutality awaited them. The colony had little food and little medical care.

Talk about injustice! Most were not contagious and many did not have the disease. A case of psoriasis was enough to send a man, woman or child into banishment. It was the longest and deadliest instance of medical segregation in American history. There are a lot of villains in the story, not the least of which are the doctors, public health officials and government servants who carried out and enforced the practice. Mostly the story is about the eventual triumph of the human spirit over ignorance and prejudice.

The elevation of Fr. Damien to sainthood is a fitting way to close this chapter.

2 comments :

  1. Book Bird Dog said...

    R. Damien must have done a lot to help the lepers deal with the unjust rules and terrible situation. Glad to hear that he's up for sainthood.

  2. Helen Ginger said...

    I was very happy to hear that Father Damien was being raised to sainthood. What faith he must have had to live with and take care of the people on that island. (I'm not Catholic, but I think it's good that he's being recognized.)

    You're right. That was a very bad time in our history.

    Helen
    Straight From Hel