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Molokai: The Story of Father Damien

Molokai: The Story of Father Damien

by Hilde Eynikel, Lesley Gilbert (Translator)

Molokai is the true story of a Belgian priest, young, healthy and devout, who single-handedly changed the lives and fates of the lepers of a Hawaiian leper colony in the nineteenth century. Damien De Veuster sacrificed himself for exiled lepers on Molokai, but there is a lot more to his life. He was a rebel when it came to helping his afflicted flock.


Molokai is the true story of a Belgian priest, young, healthy and devout, who single-handedly changed the lives and fates of the lepers of a Hawaiian leper colony in the nineteenth century. Damien De Veuster sacrificed himself for exiled lepers on Molokai, but there is a lot more to his life. He was a rebel when it came to helping his afflicted flock. Helping meant, to him, creating as normal a life as possible in the asylum, and demanding basic human rights for the community. He actively sought both a spiritual and a medical cure for leprosy. In both these endeavors he made great advances and many modern treatments of leprosy and palliative care can be traced back to him in origin. He realized that he would not gain the confidence of the lepers unless he risked contagion. This aroused intense hatred from his church authorities who felt he was breaking too many taboos but Damien, even when grossly disfigured from the leprosy which inevitably killed him, continued to work all the time for the needs of his people. He never lost his commitment or his sense of humor. This new biography, containing previously undisclosed material, makes a dramatic and fascinating story. Molokai is also a major feature film, directed by Paul Cox, with a screenplay by John Briley, and starring David Wenham, Peter O'Toole, Tom Wilkinson, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Neill and Derek Jacobi.

Editorial Reviews

"Father Damien's story is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. Like Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi, Father Damien dealt with life and death one practical moment at a time and, in so doing, conquered where there was no hope of conquest, inspired where there seemed to be nothing but despair. Against all odds, he not only overcame the depravity of the tyranny that had been created by the strong [described by Robert Louis Stevenson as a 'living hell' -- forcing young girls into prostitution, robbing food from the sick and the young, putting the weaker into virtual slavery], but he brought a sense of moral dignity to people who felt they had been abandoned by family, society and God. Though set at the turn of the century, his story speaks to our times and to all times where men lose their way in the face of the seemingly indomitable passions of greed and fear and selfishness." --From the Synopsis of the Movie, Vine International Pictures

"On May 7, 1984, Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote to Pope John Paul II about the lepers her sisters were nursing in India, Yemen, Ethiopia and Tanzania: 'In order to continue this beautiful work of love and healing, we need a saint to lead and protect us. Father Damien can be this saint. Holy Father, our lepers and everyone on earth beg you to give us a saint, a martyr to love, an example of obedience to our religion.' From the beginning to end the Belgian priest who gave himself for Hawaii's lepers was one of us; Eynikel is generous with details definitively documenting as much. She is deft, humorous, always the realist. She tells, for example, how, on one of his first assignments in Hawaii, Damien 'made an impression on the indigenous population by his hardiness and his willingness to share some aspects of their way of life. He was always in the saddle, visiting the communities in his district. One day, a Hawaiian asked him where his house was. Damien pointed to his horse.' Before long, he was sharing more aspects of their life--the pipe passed around the circle for each man to draw on, the food taken from the common bowl with one's fingers--but not without anguish. Damien's introduction to leprosy was brutal. As he walked into the new Catholic chapel at Kalaupapa, a place of banishment for lepers on the island of Molokai, 'the building was full and it was boiling hot. Damien was confronted with all the physical unpleasantness of leprosy. There were too many people with suppurating sores, so that there was a stench of rotting flesh. Moreover, one of the symptoms of leprosy is that the sufferer salivates excessively. The people were constantly coughing, clearing their throats and spitting on the ground. Damien had to turn away in order not to be sick. He went to the open window, but the building was surrounded by ill people who had not been able to get into the church.' Foul as was the physical shock of leprosy, he found the spiritual leprosy on Molokai far more daunting. It was simply the leprosy of the human condition, overrun with vice. Eynikel reports it all honestly, with a kind of clinical detachment. It was what greets us every morning with deadly familiarity--the human smut and smear of our world. Damien accepted the daily fare of anger, envy, resentment, ambition and the calumny that tore his good name to ribbons. This, while he struggles to learn the new dialects, build houses and churches, fend off incursions of the disease, visit the sick, write letters pleading for assistance, and tangle with government and Church authorities--all the while fighting his own losing battle with leprosy, contracted from the people he gave himself to. On June 4, 1994--Pentecost--John Paul II beatified Damien. And shortly after the publication of the book last December, the Pope authorized the annual celebration of Blessed Damien's feast in the United States. It will rank as an optional memorial and be observed on April 15. Coincidence? Perhaps, but one we can hail as a godsend--literally. We need Father Damien. --Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. in the National Catholic Register, October 8-14, 2000

"This book tells how a young Catholic priest (1840-1889) chose to live on the island of Molokai in Hawaii to serve the exiled lepers there. Arriving in 1864, Father Damien lived out his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience by identifying himself with the people he served. He would typically say, "We, lepers..." and he did in fact contract the disease, dying of leprosy at age 49. It is a touching story of a life that was admirable and sometimes controversial. Many people felt they could never love God and fellow humans as wholeheartedly as Father Damien did. Others found him egotistical, contrary, and even immoral. Problems of all sorts assaulted the man and his efforts to provide care to a sick and dying population on Molokai. There were severe storms that destroyed the building and chapels he had erected; unremitting conflicts with doctors, co-workers, and superiors in government and religious circles; money problems, lack of support, the inability of Fr. Damien to regularly make his own confessions; loneliness; and finally the fatal disease of leprosy. Despite these difficulties, the story is one of triumph as the love and faith of Father Damien shine through." --Lydia Samatar in Provident BookFinder, August-September 2000

"Molokai: The Story of Father Damien by Hilde Eynikel is the biography of Damien De Veuster, the Belgian priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who became the spiritual father and social advocate of the lepers exiled on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Lesley Gilbert's translation from the author's original dutch and Eynikel's scholarship make this book factual, lively, and entertaining." --Clare Boehmer, ASC in Review for Religious, July-August 2000

"It's true what they teach in freshman English. There really are just three sorts of stories: man against man, man against nature and man against himself. And the makers of the film "Molokai: The Story of Father Damien" [based on the book by Hilde Eynikel] have told the right one. The predictable modern tendency would be to make a movie about the man who gave his life ministering to lepers in Hawaii into a tale of a medical man fighting against a terrible disease -- something like 1993's "And the Band Played On." Or, even more likely, into the story of a man fighting heartless superiors and an insensitive society for the rights of the sick, like the Oscar-winning "Philadelphia" (also 1993). But neither of those was the miracle of Molokai, the isolated leper colony where Father Damien de Veuster, a Belgian priest, went voluntarily in 1873 at the age of 33. Father Damien improved living conditions there, but he cured on one; he touched them, and they were not healed. But there's the miracle: He touched them. This is the story of a man of God dying to himself, putting aside his all-too-human aversion to a horrible, wasting disease, and seeing Christ in the ruined faces and bodies of his chosen parishioners. It was for this that he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995.... Before he arrived, Father Damien was instructed by his superiors not to touch the patients, and only to eat what he himself prepared. Within weeks, he realized he couldn't minister to this flock that way -- he returned to Honolulu to get permission to risk contagion. The inner struggle this required is what the film so vividly portrays. The most powerful scene comes when Father Damien enters "The Mad House," a den for desperate drunkenness and carousing. He has gone there because a mother tells him the gangs have taken her young daughter there. Father Damien confronts the gangs, but they jeer at him. Two men pick up a rotting, limbless, nearly faceless crone and laugh as she plants a kiss on the priest. The laughter ceases when Father Damien takes the old woman into his arms and kisses her in blessing and comfort. Father Damien contracted the disease, as he knew he would before he began bandaging his flock's open wounds and sharing their meals. On the world's terms, there's no happy ending to this film, which deserves to be a Catholic classic. But the film doesn't try to tell the story on the world's terms. Instead, it shows that the real miracle -- and the real happy ending -- occurred when a man of God looked at his congregation and said, long before he was sick, "my fellow lepers." --Our Sunday Visitor, June 18, 2000

"Solid, factual biography of Blessed Damien de Veuster now in English translation (from the original Dutch). Title: Molokai, The Story of Father Damien, by Belgian journalist and historian, Hilde Eynikel; English translation by Leslie Gilbert. With access to archives of the Picpus Fathers in Louvain, the author has produced a full length contemporary biography, letting the facts of Fr. Damien's life and work speak for themselves. The 336 page book, in 21 chapters, deals with the exhausting realities of missionary life in the 19th century (for Protestants as well as Catholics), the complexity of pastoral ministry, the challenges of culture and politics. At the heart of the book: Glimpses of Fr. Damien's vibrant faith, even in the darkness of personal illness and frequent betrayal (referencing Fr. Damien's correspondence, both personal and professional). With historical photos. No index." --Crux of the News, November 15, 1999

Product Details

St Pauls/Alba House Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.50(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.80(d)

Meet the Author

Hilde Eynikel, a former war correspondent and prominent Belgian journalist and historian, has authored many books and is well-known in Europe as a regular guest on radio and TV. She collaborated in the making of the motion picture based on her book starring David Wenham, Peter O'Toole, Kris Kristofferson, Sir Derek Jacobi, Sam Neill, Tom Wilkinson, Leo McKern, Alice Krige and many others. After having written an initial best-seller on the life of Damien de Veuster, she was given unprecedented access to the as yet undisclosed archives kept in a concrete vault in the basement of the Picpus Fathers (Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) in Louvain, Belgium for this second, definitive biography. The Catholic University of Louvain granted her a Ph.D. "magna cum laude" for her exceptional work. She is also the recipient of the Monsignor Declercq prize of the Belgian Academy of Arts, Literature and Science for the best religious book of 1998.

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