Damien and Marianne of Molokai (and Robert Louis Stevenson of Scotland)

One of the things I love about preaching Evensong at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland is that I always learn something from the saints we celebrate from our book of occasional commemorations, Holy Women, Holy Men. But Damien and Marianne of Molokai came with an extra treat: an open letter by Robert Louis Stevenson, whom I have loved since childhood, and who wrote my homily for me. You can read his whole letter here.

Very briefly, a background. Molokai is an island of Hawaii with a peninsula surrounded on three sides by sea, and on the other separated from the bulk of the island by steep cliffs. In the second half of the nineteenth century, it seemed the perfect place to isolate those suffering from leprosy, since the disease was running riot and quarantine seemed the only solution to stop its progress. After seven years of pitiful conditions, the colonists received assistance and comfort in the person of one young Belgian priest, Damien, come to do what he could to lift their spirits, bind up their broken hearts, bandage their wounds, and build them a church. Later, Marianne and other Sisters of St Francis came, and added their care and labour to the colony, paying special attention to the children orphaned or isolated by the illness. Damien died of leprosy after sixteen years, with Marianne at his bedside; she survived disease-free, dying in peace at the age of 80.

One of the problems of plague is how society determines who is deserving and who undeserving of its punishment. We have seen it time and again, since the earliest accounts (with which we are familiar); the Egyptians are decimated while the chosen people of God escape unharmed across the Red Sea. There is a narrative of judgement and redemption that runs through our relationship with illness and disease: watch the movie Philapdelphia; remember last year’s uncomfortable treatment of Ebola volunteers and sufferers coming home.

There is a narrative of judgement that frames our fear of disease, and especially of those contracted between persons, passed between lovers, mother and child, strangers seated together in a sealed metal tube flying through the night; the ones that tell the story of where we have been, what we have done, whom we have embraced.

So it is decided that Marianne, that brave and selfless lover of souls, was preserved from contracting leprosy, or Hansen’s disease as we have come to know it, because of her virtue and God’s grace. But then what of the islanders she served? Were they all less virtuous than she? Or less useful, or less favoured by God? And what about Damien, the priest she came to help and relieve of his duties as he succumbed himself to the dread disease?

Perhaps the letter of Charles McEwen Hyde would have disappeared into the oblivion of history, had he not received an acerbic rebuttal from none other than Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of such bestselling books as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and, yes, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (I checked the dates. Stevenson had written Jekyll and Hyde before he ever set foot in Hawaii; his character’s name was a happy coincidence, nothing more.)

But Stevenson quotes Hyde’s letter in his own:

… About Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island … He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the works of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life. – Yours, etc., ‘C. M. HYDE

Stevenson had himself spent an 8-day week spent at the leper colony, where he must have met Marianne; he quotes others who knew Damien with all of his faults, and has no quarrel with the description of a coarse, dirty, headstrong and bigoted man. He doesn’t describe a shining saint but a man with “slovenly ways and false ideas of hygiene.” He called Damien,

“a man of the peasant class, certainly of the peasant type: shrewd, ignorant and bigoted, yet with an open mind…; superbly generous in the least thing as well as in the greatest, and as ready to give his last shirt (although not without human grumbling) as he had been to sacrifice his life; essentially indiscreet and officious, which made him a troublesome colleague; domineering … but yet destitute of real authority, so that his boys laughed at him and he must carry out his wishes by the means of bribes.”

At last, Stevenson addressed the accusation that Damien was impure in his relations with the women of the settlement. He had not heard it even as gossip on the island itself, but he admitted,

This scandal, when I read it in your letter, was not new to me. I had heard it once before; and I must tell you how. There came to Samoa a man from Honolulu; he, in a public-house on the beach, volunteered the statement that Damien had ‘contracted the disease from having connection with the female lepers’; and I find a joy in telling you how the report was welcomed in a public-house. A man sprang to his feet; I am not at liberty to give his name, but from what I heard I doubt if you would care to have him to dinner in Beretania Street. ‘You miserable little – ‘(here is a word I dare not print, it would so shock your ears) – ‘You miserable little -,’ he cried, ‘if the story were a thousand times true, can’t you see you are a million times a lower – for daring to repeat it?

Stevenson argued with Hyde in an open letter not because he needed a clean and sanitized picture of Damien the saint to be published; surely it was not his grace and virtue that polished his halo, unlike the unblemished Marianne. Rather, it was the character of those who would sit in judgement of one who gave his life for the love of the God he served and the people God had made that made Stevenson mad. It was the blissful criticism of one who lived a life of privilege and power, the healthy and wealthy who had never seen the houses of the lepers, sat with their families, set foot the inside of the church they had built for themselves. It was the willful projection of the sins of inequality, of oppression, on to the souls of the oppressed that stuck in Stevenson’s craw.

We all do it. The real miracle of Damien’ and Marianne’s service (and of R L Stevenson’s) was that they were able to resist that temptation to divide our brothers and sisters into the deserving and the undeserving, to use the sin of others as our justification. Marianne, Damien, and Robert were rare precisely in their ability to embrace the lepers as their equals in health, grace, and humanity, without spiritual, mental, or physical reservation.

“When John heard what the Messiah was doing, he sent word and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see:”

that the blind see beauty, the lame leap for joy, the deaf are sung lullabies, the lepers are loved, a dead faith finds new life and poor souls have good news brought to them.

“’And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’”

Or, since I feel as though Robert Louis really is preaching for me tonight,

“The man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father, and the father of the man in the [Apia] bar, and the father of all who love goodness; and he was your father too, if God had given you grace to see it.”

Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at the expansive and indiscriminate embrace of God’s grace. Amen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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