The Strange Case of Father Damien and Robert Louis Stevenson
Fr F.E. Burns, PE
The life of the famous Belgian missionary Father Damien (1840-1889) – “apostle of the lepers” – has been revisited in the current motion picture, ‘Molokai’. Directed by Paul Cox, with David Wenham in the leading role and an all-star cast, the movie is a faithful representation of its subject.
Less known, however, is the fact that the famous Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, a Presbyterian, was a strenuous defender of Father Damien in the face of unjustified criticisms.
Father F. E. Burns, who provides the following account, is a retired priest of the Melbourne Archdiocese and a former Air Force chaplain.
When the bulky hand-delivered envelope arrived at the office of the Sydney Morning Herald on 25 February 1890 the editor was delighted. Clearly written on the back of the envelope were the sender’s details which read “Robert Louis Stevenson, c/o The Union Club, Bligh Street, Sydney”.
The famous author, who was visiting Sydney, was much in demand in artistic and literary circles – the toast of the city. But when the editor read the article Stevenson had submitted for publication, the blood slowly drained from his face. For it was a most powerful defence of Fr Damien de Veuster, the leper priest who had died the previous April, and who had been the subject of a most bitter sectarian attack.
As a boy I had read the almost unbelievable story of Fr Damien. I had also read Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde, Treasure Island, etc. It was later I came across Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Rev Dr Hyde which Stevenson offered first to the Sydney Morning Herald and which, on legal advice, it refused to publish. But American and British newspapers soon did, and Stevenson’s Open Letter thundered across the Pacific, and across the literary world.
Stevenson’s outrage was sparked by the events following Fr Damien’s death. His courageous life had been celebrated, even in the Australian secular press, prompting the Rev H. B. Gage of Sydney to write to Rev Dr Hyde of Honolulu for some details of the suddenly famous priest. Details he got.
Hyde replied that Damien was “no saintly philanthropist”; rather he was “a coarse, dirty, headstrong bigot … not a pure man in his relations with women”, whose leprosy was “due to his vices and carelessness.”
It is a sad fact that all denominations have their bigots. This was a bigoted age and, here, a case of bigotry at its mischief-making worst. Having obtained his “details” of Fr Damien, Rev Gage proceeded to have them published in the Sydney Presbyterian where, unfortunately for both Gage and Hyde, Stevenson read them.
At first he could not believe what he was reading. Stevenson knew Hyde, and had been his guest when he lived in Honolulu. He had also, against his own doctor’s advice – Stevenson had TB – visited Molokai shortly after Damien’s death. He had been impressed by stories of Molokai and was keen to inquire further, though admitting to being “cynical about popular heroes.”
Visit to Molokai
His visit to Molokai lasted eight days, but Stevenson’s awakening began even before he landed there. He travelled in a small boat with two religious sisters, “bidding farewell (in humble imitation of Damien) to the lights and joys of life.” One of the nuns “wept silently and I could not withhold myself from joining her … [A]s the boat drew nearer [we] beheld the stairs crowded with abominable deformations of our common manhood … a population as only now and then surrounds us in the horror of a nightmare … the butt-ends of human beings lying there almost unrecognisable but still breathing, still thinking, still remembering … a pitiful place to visit, a hell to dwell in.”
But dwell in it he did. Stevenson became very friendly with the nuns and – to their despair – mixed freely with the lepers and played with the children. His sorry state of health made him doubly a candidate for infection, and Sr Marianne admonished him.
Robert Louis was a deeply spiritual man, honest to the point of bluntness, and above all a truth- seeker. What he saw at Molokai simply overwhelmed him. As a younger man he had often joked about the clergy of his own denomination in Glasgow saying that if they had appeared more as joyful bearers of the Word, and less like undertakers, he may have taken more notice.
But Fr Damien’s “hands on” Christianity, together with his robust faith and his acceptance of the news of his own leprosy “with a merry heart” was something different. Even though Stevenson was well aware of Damien’s human failings – “he was no plastic saint.” Yet the evidence of his goodness was undeniable and Stevenson, famous man of letters, graduate in both Law and Engineering, declared that the eight days on Fr Damien’s Molokai changed his life.
Before leaving the island, Stevenson presented the children’s home with many gifts – a piano among them – and addressed a little poem to the Sisters:
To the Reverend Sister Marianne, Matron of the Bishop Home, Kalaupapa.
To see the infinite pity of this place,
The mangled limb, the devastated face,
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod,
A fool were tempted to deny his God.
He sees, and shrinks; but if he look again,
Lo, beauty springing from the breasts of pain!
He marks the sisters on the painful shores,
And even a fool is silent and adores.
The fact that people like listening to and passing on racy details about others (true or false) is indeed a fact of life and, if misrepresentations and lies are published, the truth must be restored. But in the case of Fr Damien, there was another factor. Perhaps Rev H.B. Gage was sincere, even if bigoted. But Dr Hyde’s case was different. In 1885, Dr Hyde wrote of Fr Damien in the Hawaiian Gazette describing him as “that noble-hearted Catholic priest who went to Molokai in 1873 to care for the spiritual welfare of those of his faith, and whose work has been so successful.”
Why he turned from praise to slander in four years is unknown, but Hyde’s letter to Gage was certainly not penned in ignorance, and the shuddering hypocrisy of his stance was too much for Stevenson. His wife reported that he locked himself in his room, muttering as he wrote.
Robert Louis Stevenson believed Damien was a saint and predicted that the Church would one day canonise him. He made plain in his letter to Dr Hyde that Hyde’s own contribution would be used as “evidence against”, and needed to be balanced by the truth – hence his “Open Letter.”
The reaction was predictable and powerful. Poor Hyde could do no better than to try to dismiss Robert Louis Stevenson as “a bohemian crank, a negligible person whose opinion is of no value to anyone.” He had been particularly stung by Stevenson’s closing words to him: “The man who did what Damien did is my father … and the father of all who love goodness: and he was your father too, if God had given you the grace to see it.”
On his death Damien was laid to rest by and among his leper friends on Molokai. 46 years later his remains were transferred to his native Belgium. President Roosevelt provided a United States Navy ship to transport the casket, which was welcomed at Antwerp by the Cardinal Archbishop, King Leopold III and more than 100,000 people.
As for Stevenson, he died just a few years later in Samoa – but not before making a significant mark there. He bravely and effectively helped unite and represent the Samoans – underdogs as Damien’s lepers were – in the struggle against colonial exploitation. And when he died, aged 44, his native friends buried their beloved “Great Story Teller” on the peak of Mt Vaea, “under a wide and starry sky”, as he had requested.
Fr Damien’s life and work have become more well known lately through books and films. And both men have been honoured and commemorated by statues and plaques. But the greatest monument to them both – and the one that tells us much about each – is the beautiful, powerful and somewhat reckless defence of Damien penned in Sydney by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 15 No 8 (September 2002), p. 10