First Ironman of Hawaii – Part 2

Three incidents of great physical courage mark Damien’s time at Kohala



With the scene of Father Damien collapsed after a strenuous hike, I have stopped the camera, so to speak, and three images come to my mind.

The first is that of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer. After 16 days in an open boat on the high seas, including one day experiencing hurricane-force winds that kept it from landing, he and a small crew landed on May 9, 1916, on South Georgia Island, but on the wrong side of the island. He, and two other men, attempted to cross to the other side. For 36 consecutive hours, they hiked on snow and ice over unmapped terrain. In the darkness they slid, purposefully, down a mountain. They managed to walk into the whaling station.

The second image is that provided by former President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

But Damien was neither an explorer like Shackleton nor a politician in the arena like Roosevelt. Since he was a minister of the Christian Gospel, the third image is more apropos. This third image is a medieval bas-relief by Donatello (c.1386-1466) on the north pulpit of St. Lawrence Church, Florence, depicting Jesus Christ Who, according to Christian belief “descended into Hell” (or limbo) to open the doors to Heaven for the Just who had preceded Him in death. English Christians call this “the Harrowing of Hell.” The word “harrow” is derived from the Old English “hergian” meaning “to make war, lay waste, ravage, plunder,” and is the word used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for what the Vikings did to England. This bas-relief depicts Jesus upending Hell to accomplish His mission. He is sweating and exhausted beyond all telling from His labors.

And now with cameras rolling again, we see some villagers in the morning finding a man’s body. They see that he’s a white man and discover that he is unconscious, not dead. Imagine their surprise — and their joy — when they revive him and he tells them that he is a Catholic priest.

Farrow reports two additional incidents of great physical courage during Damien’s time at Kohala. On one occasion he was on horseback along the shore and saw in the distance what appeared to be a ship’s lifeboat and an unmoving body. Ignoring sharks, he swam out and found eight sailors who had been adrift for eight days after a fire at sea. He brought them to shore and nursed them back to health.

On another occasion a woman came to his door late at night. (The woman knew him because Damien had given her once ill daughter some medicine.) She whispered some words to him and then fled. She had told him pagan incantation rites against his life were being conducted that night in a burial cave. He walked through the darkness for an hour, found the cave, and surveyed the scene. There were 30 men. A voodoo priest had a doll made to look like him. Damien ran in, tore the doll to shreds, and stomped on its remains. He reproached the men and told them it was not a place for honest men and that they should return to their wives and children. Then he walked between them and left. No one touched him.


The story will continue in Part 3.

For Part 1, click here: 


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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