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Book Title: Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai|
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The author of the book: Gavan Daws
Edition: University of Hawaii Press
Date of issue: April 1st 1984
ISBN 13: 9780824809201
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 833 KB
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Like Father Damien of Molokai I had also once lived with lepers. Unlike him, however, I had lived with lepers at that time when modern medicine could already check the progress of the disease. So the lepers I had mingled with, although already scarred for life, were more or less already deemed "cured." The most common physical deformity I remember of them, practically all of them, was the way their hands looked. It seemed leprosy never exempt any of its victims with this: the fingers fold at their middle joints, like one sometimes see in comatose people in a vegetative state. So when they try to hold something (e.g. a chess piece during a game) it'd look like as if they had grabbed some glue and their fingers got stuck inwards to their palms.
How I got to be with lepers was not as dramatic as the story of Father Damien of Molokai. My grandparents contacted this disease, maybe in the early 1930's during the American Occupation. They then already had their respective families and were living miles apart: my grandfather was from an island town south of Luzon while my grandmother was from the north. It is still a mystery up to now how one could suddenly get the disease in the middle of a community with no known leper around or any history of the disease but these two were among those unfortunate ones. I do not know if they surrendered themselves voluntarily or were among those who at first tried to hide from those rounding up the lepers upon orders of the American authorities, but both ended up at the leper colony in Culion, a remote island like Father Damien's Molokai, at the Palawan group of islands similar to the Hawaiian islands where Molokai was.
The science of leprosy cure was still at its infancy at that time and they were probably both conscious that they had come to that beautiful island to die away from their families. They probably grieved for a long time, watched the sunrise and sunset for months, before finally casting their eyes upon each other and with their shared loneliness fell in love. They had three children and one of them--the middle child--was my father born in 1937, one of the 144 babies born that year in that leper colony.
About half a century before, during Father Damien's time, they still had no idea how leprosy is transmitted from a leper to a healthy person. One theory was that it is hereditary. Well, in our case this had been proven false. My father, his two siblings, their numerous children and grandchildren never showed signs of the disease.
I never met my grandfather. Apparently, after he and my grandmother were discharged from Culion he went back to his own family and died there. My grandmother, on the other hand, went to the Tala Leprosarium (now part of the Metro Manila area) where she got a house, raised many cats, established some businesses, and then, after my grandfather passed away, married another leper who had been cured (but with the same hands with folded fingers!), a veteran of World War 1. He was the grandfather I knew. And it was there at the Tala Leprosarium where I spent countless summer vacations and met my lepers. I'd say those were among the happiest days of my young life. I was a pimply youth but when I was with my lepers I felt like I had the nicest complexion in that entire community and was ready to do a soap commercial.
Father Damien was born to a devout Catholic Belgian family. His elder brother was also a priest and a sister became a nun. Hawaii was then not yet a part of the USA. It was ruled by a monarch and its indigenous population was being decimated by diseases brought to the islands by white men. Among these was leprosy.
At that time no medicine had worked yet against this biblical scourge. It was a horrible disease and meant a slow and sure death. To get a picture of how it kills, imagine the human body like its is a finely sculptured piece of candlewax with wicks all over. Then each of these are lighted one by one. As the body melts it'd take so many grotesque forms. That is leprosy.
"It was one thing to volunteer to serve the diseased, but quite another to take the intimate measure of Kalawao (the leper colony in Molokai). Damien's ministry became a priesthood of worms, of ghastly sights and suffocating smells, of the most awful physical and spiritual misery. There were six hundred leprosy sufferers at the settlement; and, apart from the healthy Hawaiian 'kokua,' Damien was the only man there with a sound, uncorrupted body--the only 'haole', certainly.
"Other priests making brief visits were reduced, often enough, to speechlessness or weeping incoherence; later, they would write horror-struck letters about the experience, full of revolting detail and exclamation points. Even at second hand the horror was fresh. One of Damien's visiting colleagues told another how 'he saw in the hospital a young woman aged about twenty, whose right side was nothing but a swarm of worms, thousands and thousands of them. All the intestines were bared, he saw the ribs as in a skeleton, but she was not suffering. He saw a leprous man busy cutting off a joint from his finger with a piece of glass. Finally he succeeded, and threw it tranquilly out the window as if it was cured, saying: there's an end to my trouble. Apparently the blood in the finger was poisoned, and it was as if a worm was devouring him from inside.'"
Father Damien was just twenty-three when he left Europe as a missionary priest. Eventually, he was assigned--happily it must be added--to the leper settlement in Molokai where he served as pastor for sixteen years. A physically strong and robust man, many years passed before he himself got the disease. He went through the same sufferings as those of his flock. He succumbed to it on 15 April 1889. He was just 49 years old.
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