Guest Columnists

Connecting with St. Damien of Molakai

by AnnaMarie Prono

I NEVER EXPECTED shingles to hijack the last few weeks of summer, but it did. The good news is that it typically only strikes one side of the body. In my case, it was the right side. I could draw a line over the center of my scalp and down my face, and the blistering sores never crossed over to the left side. The bad news is, shingles is ugly, extremely painful and it doesn’t leave soon after the medication starts.

Sores populated my scalp, around my eye and the upper part of my face. Thank God the disease didn’t get into my eye. Fortunately, I could wear big sunglasses to mask the spots and when my mop of curls didn’t hide enough, a floppy sun hat did. Indoors, I was hesitant to shed my shades. I wasn’t anxious to share the marks of my illness. As I struggled to mask the shingle spots, I said to my husband, “I may be a little overly dramatic, but I feel like a leper.”

I thought of Father Damian, the saint who ministered to the lepers on the island of Molakai, Hawaii. The severity of the two diseases is incomparable. Shingles is curable and there are medications available to treat it. Leprosy, also known as Hansens disease, is still incurable. It attacks human flesh and the nervous system, leading to death. Skin lesions are an early sign of leprosy, and as the disease progresses by infecting mucous membranes, open sores continue to grow. Tissue loss occurs and subsequent infections lead to deformities and death.

Last year, I visited Molakai, with a population just over 7,400 people. Here I learned about leprosy and the miraculous deeds of Father Damien. Before this, I rarely thought about leprosy, other than the 10 lepers cured by Christ, or the one leper embraced by St. Francis. I assumed it was a disease manifested by spots similar to   chicken pox. Ironically, shingles is caused by the chicken pox virus, dormant in one’s system, and is often triggered by stress in people over 50 years of age.

In the late 1800s, without a cure for leprosy, the Hawaiian government exiled those infected with this contagious disease to the barren island of Molakai. These sick people were separated from their families, as outcasts, and sent to live on this island with no support. Father Damien, a Sacred Heart priest from Belgium, accepted a missionary assignment to serve these Hawaiians in 1873. He did this knowing the risk of contracting the deadly disease. When he arrived, there was already a graveyard of 2,000 unidentified bodies that succumbed to leprosy. For the natives, Father Damien said he was there to heal their bodies and souls.

Trained as a carpenter, he followed the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he loved, by building churches. He shared his love for Jesus with his new family, applying ointment and bandages to their limbs. He even built orphanages for boys and girls when their families abandoned them.

Further reflection on Father Damien’s life makes me think his earthly accomplishments were superhuman. We went to several of the churches he built with the help of ailing and infected lepers. Not only did he teach them how to construct wooden structures, but he also showed them how to garden and grow produce. He wrote letters and lobbied for money and support for the leper community. In between all of this, he tended to their wounds, built coffins, buried the dead, and loved these people. Despite the many burdens he carried, Father Damien always preached the Gospel and offered hope.

Father Damien was diagnosed with leprosy in 1885, though he probably had it many years earlier. Despite his sickness, he continued to work. In 1889, Father Damien died. The tour guide on Molakai told me that upon his death, the sores and lesions on his face miraculously disappeared.

Interestingly, a bronze statue of Father Damien, sculpted by Marisol Escovar, was unveiled in the United States Capitol Rotunda in 1969, as a gift from Hawaii. This contemporary statue was created based on photos of Father Damien’s last years. The artist choose to emphasize the scars left by leprosy on his face, as well as the weakness in his right arm, by putting it in a sling, and showing a cane in his right hand. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI canonized St. Damian.

I can’t help but ponder my own vanity in trying to conceal evidence of my shingles. In recalling that the sores on Father Damien’s face disappeared upon his death, I’m comforted by Revelation 21:5: “And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”