In the lead up to Saint Damien of Molokai’s canonization, three works of non-fiction were released in an attempt to bring historical, cultural and Catholic perspectives to Damien and the Hansen’s disease settlement on Kalaupapa.
Since Pope Benedict XVI gave the official declaration of sainthood to Joseph DeVeuster on Oct. 11, 2009 in St. Peter’s Basilica, only one major book has been released. Published by Ignatius Press in October 2010, Jan De Volder’s biography, “The Spirit of Father Damien,” attempts to offer a balanced view of the work of the Belgian Sacred Hearts missionary.
In 2007, former Outside magazine editor John Tayman published “The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai.” The most widely read and reviewed book on the subject, The Colony attempts to capture the fear, endurance and hope in the unfortunate victims of ignorance (leprosy is caused by a simple bacteria and isn’t nearly as contagious as was long believed). Focusing more on the strength and character of the castoffs rather than on Damien alone, the book provides careful researched information on this infamous chapter in Hawaiian history.
Published just a month before the canonization was “Saint Damien of Molokai: Apostle of the Exiled” by Matthew and Margaret Bunson. This detailed chronology of Damien’s life reads like fiction as the stories are intertwined with historical context. Readers will remember the challenging presentation of St. Damien’s hardships, hard work, and character flaws, but especially his charity.
Just before the canonization, authors Anwei Skinsnes Law and Henry G. Law came to Molokai to discuss their recently published paperback “Father Damien: A Bit of Taro, a Piece of Fish, and a Glass of Water.” While Damien’s story has been told many times now, the Laws give voice and insight to the people who were most affected by Father Damien’s presence, the people who lived and worked alongside him at Kalaupapa.
Anwei has been studying and writing about the history of leprosy for most of her life. She first visited Kalaupapa in 1968 at the age of 16 and has conducted over 200 hours of oral history interviews with many of the patients going back to the 1970s. The title of the book is attributed to Joseph Manu who knew Father Damien from 1873 to 1889 and considered him a friend as he took Damien in his canoe to his home in Pelekunu and other parts of Molokai.
Like the Bunsons, De Volder takes a clear look at Damien’s personality, both his weaknesses and his strengths, and ably charts the development of his spirituality from a youthful enthusiasm for missionary battle to a deep serenity which, by the end of his life, nothing could shake.
These books, and other similar ones, can be found at Kalele Bookstore and Divine Expressions in Kaunakaka. If store owner Teri Waros cannot find the book you’re looking for, check some of the other gift shops around town. If all else fails, these books can all be purchased through Amazon.com.