Was Fr. Damien of Moloka’i a white savior?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was at the National Statuary Hall Collection in DC on Thursday, and she shared a photo of the statue representing Hawaii on her Instagram account, commenting that “when we select figures to tell the stories of colonized places, it is the colonizers and settlers whose stories are told – and virtually no one else.”

(You’ll have to excuse me for not linking to her story directly. I don’t understand how to use Instagram.)

As often happens with AOC, she wasn’t wrong, but she also managed to say something true in a way that you have to work to defend. The statue representing Hawaii is of Fr. Damien of Moloka’i, a Belgian priest who ministered to Hawaiian lepers and eventually died of the disease. 

“This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like! It’s not radical or crazy to understand the influence white supremacist culture has historically had in our overall culture & how it impacts the present day,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

She is, as I say, not wrong. She was saying that, when history is written by white people, it tends to present the world in terms of the wise, just, bold, important things white people have done. It makes it seem like white Europeans are the heroes of history, and everyone else is supporting characters at best, villains and savages at worst.

This is what she means by white supremacy, and she’s right. It’s not just a matter of skewing our perception of the past. Learning a white-dominated history makes it easier for white people to continue seeing themselves as realer and more important than dark-skinned people right now. A history that populates the past with white heroes and dark-skinned savages informs the thinking of people like the men who hunted and killed Ahmaud Arbery. They saw a black man in a white man’s world, and they got rid of him. 

She wasn’t even criticizing Fr. Damien specifically, although she chose his statue to feature with her comment. Her office told CNA

“it’s the patterns that have emerged among all of the statues in the Capitol: virtually all white men. Each individual could be worthy, moral people. But the deliberate erasure of women and people of color from our history is a result of the influence of patriarchy and white supremacy.”

Her office later added that “Fr. Damien conducted acts of great good, and his is a story worth telling. It is still worthy for us to examine from a US history perspective why a non-Hawaiian, non-American was chosen as the statue to represent Hawaii in the Capitol over other Hawaiian natives who conducted great acts of good, and why so few women and people of color are represented in Capitol statues at all.”

But, she did feature the statue of Fr. Damien in her commentary. She apparently didn’t realize that the statue wasn’t chosen and donated by white Europeans; it was chosen and donated by the Hawaiian people, who presumably wanted Fr. Damien to represent them.

Why would they chose a white man rather than a native? If you read about Fr. Damien’s life, it was not because he was a white savior, but because he imitated Jesus the savior. 

It’s a touchy topic to compare any man to Christ, especially when contemporaneous accounts of Fr. Damien’s life did explicitly paint him as a white savior descending from above to minister to utter savages living in squalor, helpless until the beatific European man came to the rescue. That is not what happened. This skewed version of his story helps cement the bizarre idea that Christ Himself was white.

But Fr. Damien was so beloved not because of some supernatural ability to appear from on high and single-handedly transform a people, but from a willingness to work and live with them, learn their language, eat their food, and even contract their disease. His mission wasn’t to bestow salvation on them, but to help restore them to a life of dignity that they had been denied, by teaching them about Christ, by helping them to take care of themselves, and most of all by becoming one of them when no one else even wanted to think about them. 

Every saint’s story reflects the life of Christ in one way or another; but the biography of St Damien of Molokai, whose feast day is May 10, is full of unusually striking parallels that have nothing to do with whiteness and everything to do with Christlike-ness.

His sacrifice was entirely voluntary. After the Hawaiian government isolated its lepers on a peninsula to contain the disease, the Church realized that there was no one to tend to their spiritual needs. But the disease was so fearful and so contagious; the Bishop did not insist that any of his subordinates go there to serve. Young Fr Damien, a Belgian priest, willingly volunteered as a missionary, even though he was afraid.

The Son of God was utterly complete before the Incarnation. The birth, works, suffering, and death of Christ were all entirely voluntary, asked for by the Father and willingly accepted by the Son, even though He was afraid.

He was a substitute for his brother. His brother, a member of the same religious order, was originally slated to travel to Molokai, but became sick; so Damien took his place.

Christ took on human flesh and suffered and died to pay the debt of humanity. He became our brother so that He could take our place.

He tended to the body as well as the soul. St Damien’s mission was to preach and bring the sacraments, but he also cared for the lepers’ physical well-being, helping them upgrade their living quarters, organize schools, farms, a legal system, and even a choir.

Along with teaching, forgiving sins, conferring grace, and granting salvation for our souls, Christ healed the blind, made the lame walk, fed the multitudes, and even cooked a breakfast of fish for His friends, because even a mortal body is precious, and our physical needs are true needs.

He didn’t keep himself apart, but lived his life alongside his spiritual children.  Fr Damien didn’t isolate himself out of fear, disgust, or a sense of superiority, but lived with the lepers intimately, eating communal poi with his fingers, bathing corrupted limbs and dressing wounds. He clothed them with his own hands, shared their pipes, and dug their graves, until he finally died of their disease.

Christ did not save us from Heaven, but confined His immensity into a mortal human body, to live alongside the ones He came to save, and even accepted human mortality. 

He was slandered, accused of depravity and dirtiness; and even his own superiors gave him only faint praise, calling him a “peasant” who served God “in his own way.”

Christ was hounded by slander and abuse, culminating in a trial and execution full of insults and false accusations, which He bore without defending Himself.

His good works were not confined to his life span.  When Fr Damien died, he left behind a community that was transformed.

Before He died, Christ established the Church, so that His work would continue after the Resurrection.

 

I can’t help thinking that Fr. Damien himself would have chosen someone else to represent Hawaii, had he been asked. Nothing in his life indicates that he sought fame or recognition. He is the patron saint of outcasts, including HIV patients, a population many Catholics continue to see as untouchable, unworthy. 

Maybe it would have been better to represent him with a statue showing how he looked toward the end of his life, when the disease all but destroyed his white skin. If there is a lesson to draw from finding a Christlike white man representing Hawaii, maybe the lesson is this: Christ was not white; Christ was human. 

***

A portion of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in May of 2017.

Photo of Fr. Damien by Henry L. Chase / Public domain 

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21 thoughts on “Was Fr. Damien of Moloka’i a white savior?”

  1. Dear Ms. Fisher:
    I applaud your effort to listen to Ms. Ocasio, but your generosity is misplaced. Yes, we all agree that St. Damian’s race is second to his goodness (or should), but we should also agree that there is but one Lord of History. It is the Holy Trinity who chose a Jewish maiden and who chose Europe, Columbus and St. Damien to carry on the apostolate. Who are we to decry God’s ways? Who is like God? Complaining about the European roots of our culture is incoherent for an Anglophone legislator of a democratic body inspired by Greeks. In reality we owe as much to Judaism and Hellenism. White dominance is a construct. It is irreflective myopia to focus on race. What is truly insulting to non- whites is to say they can’t look up to figures of historical Christian excellence.

  2. “His mission wasn’t to bestow salvation on them, but to help restore them to a life of dignity that they had been denied, by teaching them about Christ, by helping them to take care of themselves”. Professor Pecknold’s article of 6 August expresses the subject matter of the last phrase vividly with concrete details: “When he arrived in Molokai, the leper colony was a place of anarchy. The strong stole from the weak, the women were forced into prostitution, many children were orphaned, and the men made stills to enable constant drunkenness.”

    And perhaps the main clause – “His mission wasn’t to bestow salvation on them” – could be expressed with finer nuance, in light of Professor Pecknold’s note that, “By the time Fr. Damien died in 1889, more than 600 of Molokai’s 1,000 lepers were Catholics devoted to the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary.” For, is not baptizing, receiving, Communicating them as priestly ‘alter Christus’ bestowing salvation on them, and indeed his mission?

  3. As I understand it, each state gets two statues. The other statue for Hawaii is a native Hawaiian king – important point that has been overlooked. He case would have been stronger if she had chosen a state with two white males.

    1. Indeed – Kamehameha I. There is a full-color guide booklet of the National Statuary Hall Collection available to view or download for free at history.house.gov with photographs of all 100 statues, such as Sarah Winnemucca and Sakakawea – though, admittedly, women do not make up 50 percent of those depicted, if that be a weighty consideration.

      “Maybe it would have been better to represent him with a statue showing how he looked toward the end of his life” – in the Wikipedia article devoted to Marisol Escobar’s statue (as “last edited on 10 October 2019, at 05:21 (UTC)”) , it says, “Her statue was based on a photo she saw of him near the end of his life, which is why he is wearing glasses and has his arm is in a sling.” Interestingly, it is the least ‘realistic’-style depiction among the 100, though those of Po’pay, Florence Sabin, and the Venerable Father Eusebio F. Kino are less ‘classicistic’ than the others.

    2. If AOC was going to be honest, the actions of the Native Hawaiian government compare miserably to those of Fr. Damien.

      The Native Hawaiian government decided to isolate lepers on a remote island. They ruthlessly seized infected children from their parents, they took infected parents from their children, separated infected husbands and wives, and dumped them on Molokai, without food, without shelter, without healthcare, and without law and order. Predictably, the stronger of the lepers terrorized and bullied the weaker. Anarchy, rape, and prostitution abounded. They were without help, protection, and hope. It was literally a living hellhole.

      St. Damien, knowing he would be exposed to a deadly disease with no cure, volunteered to serve these poor lepers. He not only built a church and brought the Faith to the lepers, but he built houses, a hospital, a school, cared personally for the sick (he took up pipe smoking to mask the stench from the lepers’ ulcerated wounds), planted gardens for food, and taught trades such as carpentry. He buried the dead decently and with the comfort of the Church in a proper cemetery, and dug the graves himself. He eventually asked for and received the help of St. Marianne Cope and her sisters, who arrived some years later.

      If AOC wants to point out examples of racism, privilege, and colonialism, perhaps she should hold up a mirror to her own image – racism and privilege works both ways. And if she wants to roll out her Catholicism at election time to her constituents, perhaps she should brush up on her Church doctrine and the lives of the saints before she maligns one of the holiest and most selfless saints of the modern Church.

    3. I am part Hawaiian and grew up during the time the statue was selected and put up. The author gets it only partly right. I went to Catholic school, and we all learned about Fr. Damien. We did not learn about Queen Liliuokalani or Princess Beatrice Pauhi Bishop my choice. My ethnic heritage was denied to me at an institutional level. The fact that we learned only white history and never Hawaiian history is an effect of White Supremacy.
      Several generations were like me. And Christianity is strong in Hawaii. Although we were all sorts of Asian and White, the culture was white, and the values were white. The statue was selected in the 1960’s by a culture dominated by white thought. The legacy of white supremacy.
      Civil Rights and MLK were just getting started. Women’s movement had not started. Since then, there has been a reawakening of Hawaiian culture. The history is taught in schools as well as Hawaiian language. Things have changed.
      Who was the Princess? For brevity, her contribution is the education of children of Hawaiian heritage from 1887 to this day, it is Kamehameha Schools. If you understand the link between racism and poverty, you can understand her legacy in the socio-economic betterment of poor Hawaiians for 140 years. Is that more worthy than Fr. Damien? The fact that there is no discussion today is a remnant of White Supremacy.
      So, a comment from one of the losers in history.

      1. Interestingly, Anna Weaver’s 2008 article reprinted on 8 August by the Hawaii Catholic Herald reports that “Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, King Kamehameha I, Bernice Pauahi Bishop, and Henry Opukahaia were other Hawaii luminaries considered for the prized Washington D.C. spots. In fact, the Hawaii State Senate passed two bills in April 1961 selecting Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole and Damien.

        “However, neither bill made it out of a House committee. According to accounts in the Honolulu daily newspapers, Damien supporters alleged that they were asked by House County Committee members to support a bill to legalize dog racing in exchange for getting the Damien bill put on the floor for a vote.”

        Not long after St. Damien was finally selected in 1965, “Kamehameha I was selected for the other national statue. It was quickly decided to make a copy of the existing and well-known Kamehameha figure that stands in front of the Judiciary Building.”

        Wikipedia has an interesting article with some equally interesting links on the “Kamehameha statues” sculpted by Thomas Ridgeway Gould, one cast of which was “unveiled by Hawai’i’s last king, Kalakaua, in 1883 in front of the Judiciary Building in Honolulu, where it still remains” while another cast “was placed at Kohala Court House in Kapa’au on the Island of Hawai’i, in Kamehameha’s home district” in 1912.

        The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop in memory of his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, houses, among many other things, Allen Hutchinson’s 1896 bust of Princess Bernice and a bust of Queen Lili’uokalani.

        It is sad to think that Lili’uokalani’s support for and cooperation with St. Damien as Princess and later Queen was not part of what you learned about him at school, and that her constant fame in the continental United States from the 1880s on, especially as a composer, was not part of your education at an institutional level.

  4. Georgetown Coach John Thompson has the answer to AOC. If you refer to a person by race, color etc. you are a RACIST. Period. No debate. She is pushing a stupid creed. Turn off her racist hate. Shut down her microphone and go about living.

  5. Right now there seems to be a lot of Europhobia going on. So-called “White” people are villainized by folks like AOC or that other woman from Ethiopia who hates the United States and Europeans, even Italians and Spaniards.

    While I “get it” that they are angry and feel like they’ve been abused and think it’s their turn to be the abusers, what good is that going to do? Will it make them “feel” better to slap around a white person or blow up a Church or applaud the Holocaust of the Jews?

    Maybe so. I can’t speak for the Europhobic folks. I can, however, recognize that people of every ethnic group can work and play and love one another in a culture like the United States or other places where everyone has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, at least those who are allowed to be born alive. There are other places in the world that have those same rights. There are some places where people don’t have those rights. Who runs those places? Why are we focusing on a Priest who served lepers and died with them? Why are we so upset with Europeans? Maybe we can think of a culture in history where everyone was treated with absolute equality and “fairness”. Maybe we can’t. It’s just popular right now to focus on the Europhobia and hate white people. It’s the current “trend” for those who want to appear to be “woke”.

  6. Why Alesandra Ocasio-Cortez is wrong.
    I get her point about white male predominance/supremacy and I think that point is well made. She’s dead wrong however, to point to Damian the Leper. I think it’s another case of a politician (like Trump) speaking out without thinking things through. Others have pointed out particulars about Damian, such as the fact that the Hawaiian people themselves nominated him to represent their state, but another aspect is of particular poignancy to me during this pandemic. We all have witnessed the heroic actions of healthcare workers caring for Covid-19 patients at the risk of their own lives. When we see these courageous individuals no one categorizes them by race or gender, but by their selfless commitment to those most in need. Our contemporary heroes had protective equipment and protocols in place (even if in short supply), and ministered as physician, nurse, family member and loved one rather than have anyone die alone. Damian, without any protection, chose to go among lepers (yes, I know it’s now called Hansen’s Disease), who had been isolated from society and their loved ones. Damian chose to be utterly selfless in his humanity. He went to where no one else would dare to go and did what no one else was willing to do. The price he paid was to fall to the disease himself. AOC only saw him in terms of race and gender and in my estimation proved herself to be quite blind. For all her good points, on this AOC is dead wrong and ought to apologize, unless, like Trump, apologies are beneath her, in which case she should never even be considered for public office. We should have learned many lessons from this pandemic.
    In the future, I suspect we will erect monuments to those healthcare workers who, at great risk to their own lives, came forward to serve Covid-19 patients. And they served heroically! I would hope that no politician, of any Party, of whatever gender, age, orientation, race or other status, would suggest that such monuments be torn down or put aside.

    1. I believe she picked the exact right person. I believe she very well knew his life. I am part Hawaiian.
      It is not the statue. It is not the person. Fr. Damien is a great soul. An inspiration for all.

      It is the fact that worthy female alternatives are not even discussed, nor is that discussion even worth having. That is the remnant of White Supremacy. That is exactly her point.

      Who else might be worthy? I offer Princess Beatrice Pauahi Bishop, whose legacy is Kamehameha Schools that, since 1887, have educated selected Hawaiian children K-12. If you understand the link between poverty and racism, then you know how important this is.
      You can weigh her real socio-economic benefits to generations of real people against the inspiration of Fr. Damien, but the fact that discussion is not even considered is AOC’s point. That is the remnant of White Supremacy.

      I grew up when this statue was selected, early 1960’s. Pre-MLK. Things have changed. If you were to ask if I was brainwashed by white culture when I grew up, I would have to say, “Yes, I was.”

  7. The last native Queen of the Islands might be a good choice if skin colour is used to disqualify Saints. Or perhaps the people could vote on this?
    However I can see the irony when a foreign representative of the occupying power thinks they have the right to dictate to the people of the occupied Islands. It seems that colonialism has a new face.

  8. India’s Mahatma Gandhi had high praises for the humble work of Damien among leprosy combatants of Molokai. Gandhi, Baba Amte, Shivajirao Patwardhan, Manohar Diwan, Vikas Amte and several other Indian visionaries got on the front foot to live and work among leprosy combatants in different parts of India.

    1. Mahatma Gandhi, great soul. As has Fr. Damien.
      The irony, of course, if there were no white colonizers these men might have led “normal lives” and no one would have heard of either.

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