'Leper priest' Father Damian was a local hero, Hawaiians tell Ocasio-Cortez

Not a symbol of colonialism and white-supremacy

The virtues of a Catholic priest who served a leper colony in Hawaii in the 1850s and 1860s became unexpected headline news recently, when United States Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez picked the wrong statue to make her point.

The Democratic representative from New York posed a question via her Instagram story asking why there were not more statues honouring women historical figures, at the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection. The collection consists of statues of historical figures from the country’s 50 states, each chosen by their state and sent for display to Congress.

“Even when we select figures to tell the stories of colonized places, it is the colonizers and settlers whose stories are told – and virtually no one else,” Ocasio-Cortez posted. In the background was a statue of Saint Damien of Molokai  – Hawaii’s selection.

The statue commemorated Father Damien of Molokai because he had served an isolated leper colony for 16 years.

Ocasio-Cortez noted that Hawaii’s statue was of Fr. Damien and not of “Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii, the only Queen Regnant of Hawaii.”

But Hawaiians were not about to let Father Damien be reduced to a mere symbol of colonisation, letting Ocasio-Cortez know that the statue commemorated Father Damien of Molokai because he had served an isolated leper colony at Kalaupapa peninsula on the Hawaiian island of Molokai for 16 years, until he himself succumbed to leprosy.

Dallas Carter, a native Hawaiian and catechist for the Diocese of Honolulu, told Catholic News Agency that Hawaiians considered the Catholic Father to be a local hero.

“We did not judge him by the colour of his skin. We judged him by the love that he had for our people,” he said.

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Kamiano, St. Damien of Molokai. Appointed as a Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua in 1881 by Princess Liliuokalani, in the name of King Kalakaua, for the service and love he showed her subjects He was a humble priest that came to a land forgotten, the shadows of Kalawao, to take care of the forsaken. He came with nothing. He brought no extra clothes, no food, no money. He abandoned himself to the Providence of God, came to serve, and worked hard to provide the hope of God for kānaka maoli and Hawaiian nationals in desolation. He took what little was given to him and worked with the residents there to build a life for themselves and all the many men, women, and children that were still to be sent there for years to come. In a place of suffering and sadness he brought comfort and love. St. Damien, pray for us and help us to be like you. Mahalo iā ‘oe e Kamiano no kou aloha no ka po’e Hawaii https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/after-aoc-decries-statue-hawaiian-catholic-says-st-damien-of-molokai-gave-his-life-serving-lepers-79484

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Ocasio-Cortez’s office explained that the Congresswoman was highlighting “the patterns that have emerged among all of the statues in the Capitol: virtually all white men. Each individual could be worthy, moral people. But the deliberate erasure of women and people of color from our history is a result of the influence of patriarchy and white supremacy.”

However, later, the office told Catholic News Agency: “Fr. Damien conducted acts of great good, and his is a story worth telling. It is still worthy for us to examine from a US history perspective why a non-Hawaiian, non-American was chosen as the statue to represent Hawaii in the Capitol over other Hawaiian natives who conducted great acts of good, and why so few women and people of color are represented in Capitol statues at all.”

When canonised by Pope Benedict XVI, in 2009, the Pope commended Father Damien’s “missionary activity, which gave him such joy, reached its peak in charity.”

“Following in the steps of Jesus’ ministry to the lepers, Fr. Damien challenged the stigmatising effects of disease.” – Barack Obama

At the same time, then U.S. president Barack Obama – who was born the Hawaiian island of Oahu – expressed his own “deep admiration” for the priest.

“Fr. Damien has also earned a special place in the hearts of Hawaiians. I recall many stories from my youth about his tireless work there to care for those suffering from leprosy who had been cast out,” he said.

“Following in the steps of Jesus’ ministry to the lepers, Fr. Damien challenged the stigmatising effects of disease, giving voice to the voiceless and, ultimately, sacrificing his own life to bring dignity to so many.”

The inspiring story of Father Damien’s life and ministry is beautifully captured on location in the documentary For the Love of God, created by Centre for Public Christianity (CPX). Eternity encourages our readers to watch the doco segment here and check out CPX’s youth resource – which includes a video, reflection and discussion questions – here. (And not only because it features Simon Smart riding a donkey, although that certainly makes viewing especially worthwhile.)

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