posted by M.L. Sanico

On Sunday, October 11th (or Saturday night Hawai’i Standard Time) the world was officially introduced to Hawai’i’s patron saint. It was nonstop news coverage all week as Hawai’i residents flocked to Rome for the canonization of Father Damien, the leper priest of Moloka’i. This was an event of great importance to the history of our islands, and the culmination of a long process following his initial veneration and later beatification by Pope John Paul II on June 4th, 1995.

Father Damien is the spiritual patron for Hansen’s disease, HIV and AIDS  patients, and outcasts. That’s exactly what many Hawaiians with Hansen’s disease were in the mid to late 17th Century…outcasts. Taken from their homes and families and forced to live in the isolated, government-sanctioned medical quarantine of Kalaupapa. It would be scary to imagine how different things would have been for them if Father Damien had not come. He was single handedly responsible for improving the quality of life for hundreds of Hawaiians, encouraging them to read and write or learn a trade, teaching farming and carpentry, finding people’s talents and putting them to good use. When no one else wanted them in the community, he helped them create their own. Earlier in the year we did a post on books about living in Kalaupapa. The narrative voices explored in those books, both fiction and nonfiction, provide memorable descriptions of the lifestyle and living conditions.

It’s amazing to think about all the people, religious or not, who were affected by his deeds and continue to be, even to this day. Further proof that technology and blogs in particular are helping Hawai’i’s authors share ideas, the Hawaii Catholic Herald has a “Canonization Blog” with contributors blogging about their trips to Molokai and Rome. They’re even Twittering @HCHarold! Think of all the good authors could have done in the past with such powerful communication tools!

book-cover-shadowStarting with the great Robert Louis Stevenson, who made it a personal goal to defend the character of Father Damien, many writers have been touched by his life and the people of Kalaupapa. There are several great works out there, but the ones that seem to move me the most are the first hand accounts–stories from people who worked with him or were somehow changed by him. We mentioned in a previous post Henry Nalaielua’s No Footprints in the Sand: A Memoir of Kalaupapa (Watermark, 2006). If you haven’t read it since we last mentioned it, I still highly recommend it. It’s a “must read” if you’re even remotely interested in Kalaupapa and Father Damien.

Even more recently is Father Damien… ‘A Bit of Taro, A Piece of Fish, and A Glass of Water’ by Anwei Skinsnes Law and Henry Law. From the first page to the last, you can really tell this book was a labor of love by the Laws. They too have personal connections to Kalaupapa and over the span of 30 years compiled first-hand stories and photographs about living with Father Damien and turning Kalaupapa into a thriving community and settlement. We weren’t the only ones waiting until canonization to talk about this intriguing book, check out this article by The Hawaii Catholic Herald for a reading sample/ excerpt from Chapter 4 of the book.

The photographs are amazing and the stories are touching. It’s hard to put the book down because you just want to hear what the next person has to say. It’s interesting how much you can learn about a persons past based on other people’s accounts and memories. I find it much more engaging to learn about Damien the man by reading these brief anecdotes and stories of people who interacted with him. You get a better feel for his character that way, as opposed to a biography– a sequence of events and collection of dates and facts. In celebration of this historic event, Father Damien… ‘A Bit of Taro, A Piece of Fish, and A Glass of Water’ is perfect recognition of his accomplishments and truly honors his spirit on this occasion.

Here’s an article with a quick review on more Father Damien books.