“But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succors the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honor—the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost forever.”—Robert Louis Stevenson, Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu (1890)
A few weeks ago, I had intended to write a post on the canonization of Fr. Damien Joseph de Veuster (1840-1890), the Belgian priest who sacrificed his life in tending to the lepers of Molokai, Hawaii. For some reason it slipped my mind until a sermon by my favorite priest brought it to mind again.
Last Sunday, that priest recalled how, as a child, he had been especially impressed how, after the shattering discovery that he himself was afflicted with the dreaded disease, Fr. Damien dispensed with his usual address—“My dear fellow Christians”—with the more fateful, “My dear fellow lepers…”
I , too, was moved by this, as I was by a lesser-known but still dramatic postscript, to the life of Father--now Saint--Damien. It came from, of all people, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Criticism of a selfless saint may seem a perverse relic of a time of virulent anti-Catholicism, except when we consider that our own age is not without such impulses. (How else to explain the odd monomania of Christopher Hitchens, an essayist of otherwise formidable polemical powers, in trying to tear down at every opportunity the achievement of Mother Teresa, in her way a female successor to Fr. Damien?)
Stevenson is, of course, best known today as a master storyteller (Treasure Island), and secondarily as a poet. But he also left a considerable number of essays, largely inspired by his wanderlust—which, in a way, is how he rose unexpectedly to the defense of a cleric who was not a co-religionist.
The Scottish writer’s letter is doubly surprising because he was a co-religionist of the letter recipient, the Presbyterian Rev. Dr. C. M. Hyde of Honolulu. As he admitted in the letter, Stevenson had even been grateful to Hyde for having him to dinner when the author was passing through that area of Hawaii.
Several years before, the Rev. Hyde had praised Fr. Damien for his efforts. But, for whatever reason, he had turned against the Catholic priest. In a letter to a fellow minister, the Rev. H. B. Gage of Sydney, Australia, Hyde—with a complete turnaround in temperament reminiscent of the man at the heart of Stevenson’s famous horror tale—let loose a diatribe against the “apostle to the lepers,” calling him a “coarse, dirty man, head-strong 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 (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.”
Maybe that last sentence was the key to the change: it emits an unmistakable area of sectarian jealousy. Perhaps that resentment left Rev. Hyde more open to scuttlebutt than he would have been under normal circumstances.
The Rev. Gage passed Hyde’s charges along to a religious publication, the Sydney Presbyterian. That is where Stevenson, in mounting astonished fury, read it. Before long, his wife later observed, he had disappeared into the study, muttering and ready to write at white heat.
As a concession to his father, an engineer who did not want his son to take up anything as impractical as writing, Stevenson had studied the law, rather half-heartedly, as a young man. You can see how, given the unusual settings, eras and themes of his fiction, Robert might have been bored by wills, commercial law, and other dry-as-dust aspects of the legal profession.
But put him on his feet, once he had marshaled a ton of evidence, and addressing a jury, and I don’t think you could have find a more persuasive barrister—or, if you were on the other side, one who could put the case against you so damningly.
And that’s just what Stevenson did now to Hyde. Point by point, he swatted away the minister’s charges. He wrote as someone who had not only visited Molokai (against doctor’s orders) shortly after Damien’s death and had, over eight days, interviewed people who had known the priest, but as someone intimately familiar with a dread disease that had afflicted himself since childhood—tuberculosis, or “consumption”—and appreciated those who tended to the spirit as well as the body.
Stevenson’s letter, submitted to the Sydney Morning Herald in February 1890, filled the editor there with worries about legal action. Other publications in the British Empire and the United States, though, were not so timorous, and they gladly published the piece.
From the beginning, Stevenson served notice on Hyde that the minister’s own comfort—in marked contrast to Damien’s obvious distress—was fair game for comment:
“It may be news to you that the houses of missionaries, such as yours sir, on Beretania Street, are a cause of mocking on the streets of Honolulu. It will at least be news to you, that when I returned your civil visit, the driver of my cab commented on the size, the taste, and the comfort of your home.”
God had presented the leper colony of Molokai as an “opportunity,” Stevenson wrote, for ministers of all denominations “to help, to edify, to set divine examples.” Damien had seized the opportunity; Hyde had not:
“I marvel it should not have occurred to you that you were doomed to silence; that when you sat inglorious in the midst of your well being, and Damien, crowned with glories and horrors, toiled and rotted in that pigsty of his under the cliffs of Kalawao—you, the elect who would not, were the last man on earth to collect and propagate gossip on the volunteer who would and did.”
I came across a thoughtful post by Ted Olsen on the “Christian History” blog that details the subsequent private correspondence of Hyde and Stevenson. In some ways, Stevenson did agree with Hyde—i.e., that Damien was “dirty, bigoted, untruthful, unwise, tricky”—but, more important, the priest was also "superb with generosity, residual candour, and fundamental good humour; convince him he had done wrong (it might take hours of insult) and he would undo what he had done, and like his corrector better. A man with all the grime and paltriness of mankind, but a saint and hero all the more for that.”
Stevenson also came to feel that he had been unduly harsh on Hyde. At the same time, he did not take back one iota his feeling that the Belgian priest had done heroic work.
For his part, Hyde was mortified that Gage had opened to public view a letter he had believed was for his eyes only. A young girl, the daughter of a colleague, recalled him saying, “I have just suffered the greatest undoing of my entire life. I am now being crucified by the most widely read author of our day and on the charges of telling the truth about that sanctimonious bigot on Molokai.”
Well, one’s sympathy only goes so far. For me, it stops at reading the word “crucified”—comparing the storm of criticism that fell on his head to Christ’s overwhelming physical and mental suffering—and the annoyance is compounded when he repeats his charge about Damien without acknowledging, as Stevenson did, Damien's overwhelming goodness.
The overwhelming power of Stevenson’s letter was recognized by Orson Welles, who, before his death in 1985, included this among a group of literary works that he recorded, including favorite authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Isak Dinesen, Oscar Wilde and Robert Graves.
Over the years, Welles’ colleagues in the film community worldwide have also taken notice of the apostle to the lepers. Two more prominent recent versions were Molokai, the Story of Father Damien (1999), directed by Paul Cox and starring David Wenham, Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill and Kris Kristofferson; and Father Damien: The Leper Priest (1980), a TV movie directed by Steve Gethers and starring Ken Howard as the Belgian priest.
The latter film featured its own off-screen drama: Only a couple of days into filming, original star David Janssen suffered a fatal heart attack. The footage featuring the former star of The Fugitive was scrapped and filming began again with Howard.
From his two-season run on network television as The White Shadow, you’ll remember that Howard is a tall, strapping blond man—a far cry from his character in the TV biopic. Naturally, he wore a heavy wig for his role—and benefited from Hollywood’s belief that people would not pay attention to noticeable differences between actors and the real-life people they portray.