First Ironman of Hawaii – Part 3

Damien’s life of physical labor and courage makes him a champion



In 1873, Damien’s bishop invited Father Damien, and many of the priests on the Islands, to Maui for the dedication of a new church. After the ceremony, the bishop addressed his priests about the new rules by the Board of Health concerning the leper colony that had been established on Molokai in 1866. Because the disease was contagious and incurable, there could no longer be visits to the colony. He wanted to provide pastoral care to those with leprosy but he would not assign anyone to the colony. Instead, he asked for a volunteer who in effect would be taking a vow of stability like a monk — and who would be at high risk of acquiring the disease. Four stepped forward. Damien, age 33 at this point, successfully persuaded the bishop to let him be the one chosen to go to Molokai.

When Damien landed at the Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai, at the base of the highest sea cliffs in the world — soaring 2,200 feet high — it was the first time he had seen people suffering from advanced stages of leprosy.

Let’s stop the cameras again.

The conditions of Molokai in the 19th century are not far from us in space or time. In 1992, some Catholic nuns invited Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Catholic priest from Toronto on his visit to Egypt, to “an area where lepers and severely handicapped people were kept, in chains, in underground areas hidden away from civilization.” He recounted that “[t]he stench was overpowering, the misery shocking, the suffering incredible. I descended into several hovels…The sister accompanying me said: ‘Simply touch them. You have no idea what the touch means, when they are kept as animals and monsters.’ I laid hands on many of these women and men and touched their disfigured faces and bodies. Tears streamed down my face as the women and men and several children shrieked at first then wept openly” (Rev. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., “Let Us Not Fear the Sepulchers of This Earth,” Feb. 12, 2009).

From the first moment when he landed, Damien never flinched. He would embrace the people, share eating utensils with them, share his pipe with them, and bandage them. He showed profound respect for their human dignity. To the people he served, he refused to act as though he was doing anything heroic. And he shunned all publicity outside the island.

We can start the cameras again.

On the day of his arrival, Damien presided over the burial of a man. (The 800 villagers were dying at the rate of one a day. Their lifespan after arrival on Molokai was three to four years.) After the burial, an elderly woman who did not have leprosy asked him to see her dying son who did. He went into a hovel foul with death. The man was a Catholic and was overjoyed to see him. Overcoming nausea, Damien administered the last rites — getting within inches to hear the man’s confession from his leprous throat and anointing his worm-eaten body with holy oil. After sunset, he died. The mother asked for the same baptism that had given her son so much joy and peace. She received it and died two hours later.

On the first night, and for many nights after, Damien had no place to sleep but outdoors. He was kept awake with the sounds of the night — men and women in primitive huts and lean-to’s, with no tomorrow and no dignity, getting loudly drunk and engaging in sexual orgies.

On his first full day, Damien reacted to what he had seen and heard during the previous day’s burial. No longer would there be burials in rags and in graves so shallow that wild dogs and pigs would mangle the remains. He constructed a coffin and dug a six-foot grave. (During his entire time, he would dig 2,000 graves six feet deep and construct a like number of coffins.) Soon enough, he built a house for himself and sited it next to the cemetery.

In his first months, he located a clean water source, a pool with a diameter of 75 feet in a valley called Waihanau, and demanded that the authorities deliver iron pipes. He and a crew of the least disabled villagers carried them and set them in place.

Over the next 20 years, he built with his own hands 300 houses 16 feet by 10 feet — painted ones. He planted vegetable and flower gardens. He built schools for the children and ten chapels, one every year for the first ten years.

Step by laborious step, day by day, Damien removed the fear of death from the lives of the people entrusted to his care. He brought clean water, food, clothing, schools, a hospital, a cemetery, colorful flowers, and painted houses. He brought color not only to their clothes (which had been rags), their gardens, and their homes but, as a minister of the Gospel, he brought color to their souls. Gone was drunkenness and licentious for those who had lost all hope and all sense of their dignity.

In the evenings, 20 villagers and Damien would eat and converse and sing. They were oblivious to leprosy. These Hawaiians used a Hawaiian word to describe these ennobling soirées. It is translated into English as “the-time-of-peace-between-night-and-day.” For those of us who are Christian, it suggests the time two men on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus spent with Christ (Luke 24). Indeed, for those of us who are Christian or who know about the Christian religion, Damien’s life with persons with leprosy — and his eventual death from leprosy at age 49 — bear strong similarities to what Christians call the Incarnation, God becoming man in Jesus Christ. One sentence of the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John declares that Jesus “dwelt (literally, pitched his tent) among us.”

We are told athletes, good athletes, leave nothing on the field of play. Damien left nothing on the field of play. He gave it his all. On Sunday, October 11, 2009 (the day after the 2009 Ironman Triathlon), Pope Benedict XVI declared in a canonization Mass in Rome that Damien won a glorious crown, that he is among the saints of God. Perhaps on the 13th anniversary this October 11, all men and women of goodwill around the world, like the old Hawaiian sailor who told Farrow of Damien, will half-genuflect and look heavenward.

Damien’s life of physical labors and physical courage epitomizes the “muscular Christianity” espoused during Damien’s lifetime half a world away by Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, and which found expression in the well-known Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Hughes wrote, in Tom Brown at Oxford: A Sequel to Schooldays at Rugby (1863), “that a man’s body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak [and] the advancement of all righteous causes” (quoted in Tony Ladd and James Mathisen, Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sport, page 170). Hughes references “champions” of old. The word “champion” derives from the Latin campus, or “field.” In medieval times, a champion did not denote a winner, but one who took the field of battle on behalf of women, children, the elderly, the disabled.

Damien was a champion. He was the First Ironman of Hawaii. May we respectfully ask to what end the Ironman triathletes — and athletes in every sport and at every level — train their bodies?


For Part 2, click here:

For Part 1, click here:


A version of this essay appeared in the American Spectator (Oct. 2009).


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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