First Ironman of Hawaii – Part 1

Father Damien cleared many tests of human endurance, starting in 1863


Faith Virtue

On October 6 and 8, the Ironman Triathlon will take place in Hawaii. In a contest that tests human endurance, the athletes, without taking breaks, will swim 2.4 miles in the open ocean, bike 112 miles, and run a marathon (26 miles). It has been held annually since 1978.

I submit to you, however, that the first Ironman of Hawaii met the test of human endurance well before 1978. His name was Makua Kamiano and he lived in Hawaii from 1864 until his death in 1889.

The world learned of Makua Kamiano’s exploits for the first time in detail in a 1937 biography by John Farrow that was subsequently translated into 13 languages. It remains in print. (If Farrow is known at all today, it is as father of the actress Mia Farrow, wife to André Previn and Frank Sinatra, and cohabitor with Woody Allen.) John Farrow (1904-1963) wrote short stories, novels, biographies, and 28 screenplays, and he directed 46 films. For his work in Around the World in Eighty Days and Wake Island, he was nominated for Academy Awards.

An Australian who had run off to sea, Farrow had sailed throughout the Pacific. After additional adventures, he found himself in the early 1920s on one of the Society Islands (of which Tahiti is a part) waiting for a ship when he befriended a young man of about 25 years of age with leprosy. The young man introduced him to a retired sailor from Hawaii who regaled him with stories about a leper colony and a man Farrow thought fictional named Kamiano. Whenever the old sailor spoke the name Kamiano, he half-genuflected and looked heavenward. Farrow later learned that “Makua Kamiano” was Hawaiian for “Father Damien,” a real person. Farrow, a lover and writer of big stories, went to Belgium and Hawaii to learn the details of this man’s story, resulting in the 1937 biography.

As a sailor, Farrow enjoyed describing Damien’s trip to Hawaii. Damien de Veuster left Belgium in 1863 at the age of 23 on board a sailing ship in the company of a number of passengers, including nine other men from his religious order. They were Catholic priests; as a seminarian, he was not yet ordained. It was his first time on an oceangoing ship — and what an experience! In our day, we would undoubtedly find a trip of five months, on a sailing ship, going round the fierce Cape Horn a test of human endurance. But in those days it was simply not out of the ordinary for anyone going halfway around the world.

Two months after his arrival, he was ordained and, because of the need, without any apprenticeship, made a pastor in Puno. During his tenure he built two churches. Now, there are many Catholic bishops and priests who served in the U.S. in the period 1850 to 1950 who acquired the reputation of builder — of churches, hospitals, schools, orphanages, convents. The difference is that Damien built these two churches with his own hands.

When a pastor of another parish, a much larger one geographically, became ill, Damien volunteered to switch parishes with him. That brought Damien to Kohala. It took him six weeks to visit most parts of the parish. There was a remote village, however. To this village, Damien traveled with two parishioners by canoe but it capsized in shark-infested waters. He decided to make a second attempt. By himself he rode a horse as far as it could go, then walked, then swam, and then climbed a mountain on his hands and knees. At its summit there was no village in sight. So he climbed down a steep ravine, then up a second mountain, then down again, then up a third mountain — through rain, through mud sometimes waist-deep, losing his boots, losing three fingernails, scratched by vines and branches. This third mountain he descended at night — his fourth night out. Exhausted, dehydrated, losing blood and unconscious, he collapsed.

Let’s stop the cameras at this point, as movie director Farrow might have barked.

I will continue the story in part 2 (of 3). Stay tuned!


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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