The Strange Case of Father Damien (Part 1 of 3)

Today we have part one of a guest post written by Anna Weerasinghe, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School studying the history and theology of Hansen’s disease. Read part two and part three.

“The simple truth is, [Father Damien] was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong, and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island. He had no hand in the reforms and improvement inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health…and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness.”1   

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Reverend Doctor Charles McEwen Hyde. In In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Reverend Doctor Charles McEwen Hyde. In In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

So wrote the Reverend Doctor Charles Hyde on August 2, 1889, just months after Father Damien’s death. In just a few weeks on May 11, “Father Damien Way” (33rd Street between First and Second Avenues) will join the ranks of the numerous public memorials named in Saint Damien’s honor.2 Based on Hyde’s colorful description, Damien hardly sounds like the kind of man to be sainted for his charitable work in Hawaii among sufferers of Hansen’s disease (better known as leprosy). Nor does Damien seem like the kind of celebrity whose death would ignite a firestorm of controversy, culminating in a pitched battle of wits between the Reverend Doctor Hyde and world-renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson that would help catapult its subject to enduring international fame.

So just who was Father Damien? A saint or a sinner? A hero or a victim? In this series of blog posts, we will get to know the many sides of Father Damien—the man, the saint, the Hansen’s disease victim—and the divisive forces that shaped his life and legacy.

When Father Damien first arrived at the Kalawao leper settlement on the isolated Hawaiian island of Molokai in 1873, he caught the attention of the press almost immediately. As the first western religious missionary, Catholic or Protestant, to live within the leper settlement despite being free of the disease himself, Damien was something of a sensation. He was praised for his Catholic sense of self-sacrifice and even dubbed a “martyr,” particularly towards the end of his life when it became clear that he had contracted a severe and ultimately fatal form of Hansen’s disease.3

“The priest of Kalawao, with some children of the settlement.” In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

So while the Reverend Doctor Hyde only met Damien once during a brief visit to Kalawao in 1885, he had already heard far too much about the priest’s saintliness for his taste. Philanthropic efforts to segregate and support those afflicted with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii were largely funded by wealthy Protestant businessmen and politicians from the United States with a view to future American annexation of the islands. Hyde, an able administrator of these charitable funds, felt that Damien was taking advantage of Protestant charity. “Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth,” Hyde complained. “But never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.”4

Halfway across the world in Sydney, Robert Louis Stevenson read Hyde’s criticism of Damien with mounting rage. Fresh from the success of his best-selling novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson wasted no time in raising his pen against the Reverend Doctor: “With you,” he wrote with a certain viciousness, “I rejoice to feel the button off the foil and to plunge home.”5 In February of 1890, he printed his own “Open Letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu,” a thirty-page rebuttal ripping apart Hyde’s short complaint.

Unlike Hyde, Stevenson had never met Damien personally. But he was a fellow invalid, terminally ill with tuberculosis, and felt a close affinity for the priest and his country despite their religious differences. Stevenson had travelled to Hawaii for his health in the summer of 1889 and visited the island of Molokai just after Damien’s death. Interviewing both Damien’s compatriots and Protestant critics, he found they “build up the image of a man, with all his weaknesses, essentially heroic, and alive with rugged honesty, generosity, and mirth.”6 Was he coarse? Dirty? Headstrong? Even bigoted? Stevenson admitted he probably was, but asserted that these faults didn’t diminish his bravery or achievements. To Stevenson, Damien’s failings simply made him a human, rather than superhuman, hero.

The response was immediate. Hawaiian newspapers were flooded with responses to Stevenson’s letter ranging from gleeful to indignant. Headlines bloomed across the United States, from San Francisco to Omaha to New York. “Damien Defended!” declared the Omaha Daily Bee. “A Reverend Gossip Rebuked,” taunted The New York Times.7 Hyde didn’t stand much of a chance in this battle of the printed word. Stevenson’s impassioned defense of Damien triggered an outpouring of charity from around the world dedicated to the deceased Damien’s cause. Hyde never backed down from his position, but he retreated from public view. “I leave it to any candid mind to judge which side lies the calumny and slander,” the beleaguered Hyde concluded. “There let it lie.”8

Damien’s greatest public critic and most famous defender have had their say, but the man himself remains a mystery Next time, we’ll hear more from those who knew the best and worst of Damien personally—his religious superiors.

Read part two and part three.


1. As quoted in Robert Louis Stevenson, Father Damien: an open letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu from Robert Louis Stevenson (London: Chatto and Windus, 1890), 6-7.

2. Flanders House.

3. For examples see, “Father Damien’s Mission,” The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, November 5, 1885; “The Late Father Damien,” The Honolulu Daily Bulletin, April 29, 1889; “The Leper Martyr,” New-York Tribune, May 12, 1889.

4. Gavan Daws, Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 12-13. Stevenson, Father Damien, 7.

5. Stevenson, Father Damien, 8.

6. Stevenson, Father Damien, 20.

7. For examples see “Letter to the Editor: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letter,” The Hawaiian Gazette, May 27, 1890; “Letter to the Editor: Stevenson’s Letter,” The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, May 21, 1890; Mary Lambert, “Stevenson and Father Damien,” San Francisco Morning Call., June 8, 1990; “Damien Defended!,” Omaha Daily Bee, May 24, 1890; “A Reverend Gossip Rebuked,” The New York Times, January 21, 1890.

8. As quoted in Daws, Holy Man, 247.