The First Ironman of Hawaii: St. Damien

Damien de Veuster, a spiritual athlete, will be canonized on October 11.

On Saturday, October 10, the Ironman Triathlon will take place in Hawaii. In a contest that tests human endurance, the athletes, without taking breaks, will swim 2.4 miles in the open ocean, bike 112 miles, and run a marathon (26 miles). It has been held annually since 1978.

I submit to you, however, that the first Ironman of Hawaii met the test of human endurance well before 1978. His name was Makua Kamiano and he lived in Hawaii from 1864 until his death in 1889.

The world learned of Makua Kamiano's exploits for the first time in detail in a 1937 biography by John Farrow that was subsequently translated into 13 languages. It remains in print. (If Farrow is known at all today, it is as father of the actress Mia Farrow, wife to André Previn and Frank Sinatra, and cohabitor with Woody Allen.) John Farrow (1904-1963) wrote short stories, novels, biographies, and 28 screenplays, and he directed 46 films. For his work in Around the World in Eighty Days and Wake Island, he was nominated for Academy Awards.

An Australian who had run off to sea, Farrow had sailed throughout the Pacific. After additional adventures, he found himself in the early 1920s on one of the Society Islands (of which Tahiti is a part) waiting for a ship when he befriended a young man of about 25 years of age with leprosy. The young man introduced him to a retired sailor from Hawaii who regaled him with stories about a leper colony and a man Farrow thought fictional named Kamiano. Whenever the old sailor spoke the name Kamiano, he half-genuflected and looked heavenward. Farrow later learned that "Makua Kamiano" was Hawaiian for "Father Damien," a real person. Farrow, a lover and writer of big stories, went to Belgium and Hawaii to learn the details of this man's story, resulting in the 1937 biography.

As a sailor, Farrow enjoyed describing Damien's trip to Hawaii. Damien de Veuster left Belgium in 1863 at the age of 23 on board a sailing ship in the company of a number of passengers, including nine other men from his religious order. They were Catholic priests; as a seminarian, he was not yet ordained. It was his first time on an oceangoing ship and what an experience! In our day, we would undoubtedly find a trip of five months, on a sailing ship, going round the fierce Cape Horn a test of human endurance. But in those days it was simply not out of the ordinary for anyone going halfway around the world.

Two months after his arrival, he was ordained and, because of the need, without any apprenticeship, made a pastor in Puno. During his tenure he built two churches. Now, there are many Catholic bishops and priests who served in the U.S. in the period 1850 to 1950 who acquired the reputation of builder -- of churches, hospitals, schools, orphanages, convents. The difference is that Damien built these two churches with his own hands.

When a pastor of another parish, a much larger one geographically, became ill, Damien volunteered to switch parishes with him. That brought Damien to Kohala. It took him six weeks to visit most parts of the parish. There was a remote village, however. To this village, Damien traveled with two parishioners by canoe but it capsized in shark-infested waters. He decided to make a second attempt. By himself he rode a horse as far as it could go, then walked, then swam, and then climbed a mountain on his hands and knees. At its summit there was no village in sight. So he climbed down a steep ravine, then up a second mountain, then down again, then up a third mountain -- through rain, through mud sometimes waist-deep, losing his boots, losing three fingernails, scratched by vines and branches. This third mountain he descended at night -- his fourth night out. Exhausted, dehydrated, losing blood and unconscious, he collapsed.

Let's stop the cameras at this point, as movie director Farrow might have barked. Three images come to my mind. The first is that of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer. After 16 days in an open boat on the high seas, including one day experiencing hurricane-force winds that kept it from landing, he and a small crew landed on May 9, 1916, on South Georgia Island, but on the wrong side of the island. He, and two other men, attempted to cross to the other side. For 36 consecutive hours, they hiked on snow and ice over unmapped terrain. In the darkness they slid, purposefully, down a mountain. They managed to walk into the whaling station.

The second image is that provided by former President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech entitled "Citizenship in a Republic" at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

But Damien was neither an explorer like Shackleton nor a politician in the arena like Roosevelt. Since he was a minister of the Christian Gospel, the third image is more apropos. This third image is a medieval bas-relief by Donatello on the north pulpit of St. Lawrence Church, Florence, depicting Jesus Christ Who, according to Christian belief "descended into Hell" (or limbo) to open the doors to Heaven for the Just who had preceded Him in death. English Christians call this "the Harrowing of Hell." The word "harrow" is derived from the Old English "hergian" meaning "to make war, lay waste, ravage, plunder," and is the word used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for what the Vikings did to England. This bas-relief depicts Jesus upending Hell to accomplish His mission. He is sweating and exhausted beyond all telling from His labors.

And now, with cameras rolling again, we see some villagers in the morning finding a man's body. They see that he's a white man and discover that he is unconscious, not dead. Imagine their surprise -- and their joy -- when they revive him and he tells them that he is a Catholic priest.

Farrow reports two additional incidents of great physical courage during Damien's time at Kohala. On one occasion he was on horseback along the shore and saw in the distance what appeared to be a ship's lifeboat and an unmoving body. Ignoring sharks, he swam out and found eight sailors who had been adrift for eight days after a fire at sea. He brought them to shore and nursed them back to health.

On another occasion a woman came to his door late at night. The woman knew him because Damien had given her once ill daughter some medicine. She whispered some words to him and then fled. She had told him pagan incantation rites against his life were being conducted that night in a burial cave. He walked through the darkness for an hour, found the cave, and surveyed the scene. There were 30 men. A voodoo priest had a doll made to look like him. Damien ran in, tore the doll to shreds, and stomped on its remains. He reproached the men and told them it was not a place for honest men and that they should return to their wives and children. Then he walked between them and left. No one touched him.

In 1873, Damien's bishop invited him, and many of the priests on the Islands, to Maui for the dedication of a new church. After the ceremony, the bishop addressed his priests about the new rules by the Board of Health concerning the leper colony that had been established on Molokai in 1866. Because the disease was contagious and incurable, there could no longer be visits to the colony. He wanted to provide pastoral care to those with leprosy but he would not assign anyone to the colony. Instead, he asked for a volunteer who in effect would be taking a vow of stability like a monk -- and who would be at high risk of acquiring the disease. Four stepped forward. Damien, now age 33, successfully persuaded the bishop to let him go to Molokai.

When Damien landed at the Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai, at the base of the highest sea cliffs in the world -- at that point searing 2200 feet high, it was the first time he had seen people suffering from advanced stages of leprosy.

Let's stop the cameras again.

The conditions of Molokai in the 19th century are not far from us in space or time. In 1992, some Catholic nuns invited Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Catholic priest from Toronto on his visit to Egypt, to "an area where lepers and severely handicapped people were kept, in chains, in underground areas hidden away from civilization." He recounted that "[t]he stench was overpowering, the misery shocking, the suffering incredible. I descended into several hovels…The sister accompanying me said: 'Simply touch them. You have no idea what the touch means, when they are kept as animals and monsters.' I laid hands on many of these women and men and touched their disfigured faces and bodies. Tears streamed down my face as the women and men and several children shrieked at first then wept openly." (Rev. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., "Let Us Not Fear the Sepulchers of This Earth," Feb. 12, 2009.)

From the first moment when he landed, Damien never flinched. He would embrace them, share eating utensils with them, share his pipe with them, and bandage them. He showed profound respect for their human dignity. To the people he served, he refused to act as though he was doing anything heroic. And he shunned all publicity outside the island.

And we can start the cameras again.

On the day of his arrival, Damien presided over the burial of a man. (The 800 villagers were dying at the rate of one a day. Their lifespan after arrival on Molokai was three to four years.) After the burial, an elderly woman who did not have leprosy asked him to see her dying son who did. He went into a hovel foul with death. The man was a Catholic and was overjoyed to see him. Overcoming nausea, Damien administered the last rites -- getting within inches to hear his confession from his leprous throat and anointing his worm-eaten body with holy oils. After sunset, he died. The mother asked for the same baptism that had given her son so much joy and peace. She received it and died two hours later.

On the first night, and for many nights after, he had no place to sleep but outdoors. He was kept awake with the sounds of the night -- men and women in primitive huts and lean-to's with no tomorrow and no dignity getting loudly drunk and engaging in sexual orgies.

On his first full day, Damien reacted to what he had seen and heard during the previous day's burial. No longer would there be burials in rags and in graves so shallow that wild dogs and pigs would mangle the remains. He constructed a coffin and dug a six-foot grave. Eventually, he dug 2,000 graves six feet deep and he constructed a like number of coffins. After some time, he built a house for himself and sited it next to the cemetery.

In his first months, he located a clean water source, a pool with a diameter of 75 feet in a valley called Waihanau, and demanded that the authorities deliver iron pipes. He and a crew of the least disabled villagers carried them and set them.

Over the next 20 years, he built with his own hands painted houses 16 feet by 10 feet -- 300 of them. He planted vegetable and flower gardens. He built schools for the children and, every year for the first 10 years, he built a chapel.

Step by laborious step, day by day, Damien had removed the fear of death from the lives of the people entrusted to his care. He brought clean water, food, clothing, schools, a hospital, a cemetery, colorful flowers, and painted houses. He brought color not only to their clothes (which had been rags), their gardens and their homes but, as a minister of the Gospel, he brought color to their souls. Gone was drunkenness and licentious for those who had lost all hope and all sense of their dignity.

In the evenings, 20 villagers and Damien would eat and converse and sing. They were oblivious to leprosy. These Hawaiians used a Hawaiian word to describe these ennobling soirées. It is translated into English as "the-time-of-peace-between-night-and-day." For those of us who are Christian, it suggests the time two men on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus spent with Christ. (Luke 24) Indeed, for those of us who are Christian or who know about the Christian religion, Damien's life with persons with leprosy -- and his eventual death from leprosy at age 49 -- bear strong similarities with what Christians call the Incarnation, God becoming man in Jesus Christ. One sentence of the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John declares that Jesus "dwelt (literally, pitched his tent) among us."

We are told athletes, good athletes, leave nothing on the field of play. Damien left nothing on the field of play. He gave it his all. On Sunday, October 11, the day after this year's Ironman Triathlon, Pope Benedict XVI will declare, in a "canonization" Mass in Rome, that Damien won a glorious crown, that he is among the saints of God. Perhaps on that day, all men and women of goodwill around the world, will, like the old Hawaiian sailor of the 1920's who told Farrow of Damien, half-genuflect and look heavenward.

Damien's life of physical labors and physical courage epitomizes the "muscular Christianity" espoused during Damien's lifetime half a world away by Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, and which found expression in the well-known Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Hughes wrote, in Tom Brown at Oxford: A Sequel to Schooldays at Rugby (1863), "that a man's body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak [and] the advancement of all righteous causes…" (Page 170, quoted in Tony Ladd and James Mathisen, Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sport (1999)). Hughes references "champions" of old. The word "champion" derives from the Latin campus for "field." In medieval times, a champion did not denote a winner, but one who took the field of battle on behalf of women, children, the elderly, the disabled.

Damien was a champion. He was the First Ironman of Hawaii. May we ask to what end the Ironman triathletes -- and athletes in every sport and at every level -- train their bodies?

James Thunder is an attorney who practices in the District of Columbia and Virginia.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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