St. Damien of Moloka’i ‘gave his life’ serving lepers, says Hawai’ian Catholic after criticism of statue from congresswoman

WASHINGTON (CNA) — A Hawai’ian Catholic catechist said that St. Damien of Moloka’i is a “hero” to the Hawai’ian people, after a prominent congresswoman claimed the statue honoring him in the U.S. Capitol is part of colonialism and “patriarchy and white supremacist culture.”

This bronze statue of St. Damien of Molaka ‘i is based on photographs taken near the end of his life, with the scars of his disease visible on his face and his right arm in a sling beneath his cloak. His broad-brimmed hat was traditionally worn by missionaries. His right hand holds a cane. This statue and that of King Kamehameha I, Hawai ‘i ‘s other gift to the National Statuary Hall Collection, were unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda on April 15, 1969, 80 years after Fr. Damien ‘s death. The statue ‘s design is typical of the sculptor ‘s work; Marisol Escobar is known for her portraits with faces, hands and feet attached to large blocks of wood. In this case in particular, it reflects her decision “to undertake the work directly and simply in much the same way Father Damien did his work.” (Architect of the Capitol)

St. Damien “gave his life” serving the isolated leper colony at Kalaupapa peninsula on the Hawai’ian island of Moloka’i, said Dallas Carter, a native Hawai’ian and a catechist for the diocese of Honolulu, in an interview with CNA.

“Any Hawai’ian here who is aware of their history — which most Hawai’ians are — would absolutely, Catholic or not, defend the legacy of Damien as a man who was embraced by the people, and who is a hero to us because of his love for the Hawai’ian people,” Carter said.

“We did not judge him by the color of his skin. We judged him by the love that he had for our people,” Carter told CNA.

In a July 30 Instagram story, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) asked why there were not more statues honoring women historical figures, at the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection. The collection includes statues honoring historical figures from all 50 states, which are chosen by the states and sent by them to Congress for display.

“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, with a picture of Fr. Damien’s U.S. Capitol statue in the background.

In 1969, Hawai’i chose to honor St. Damien alongside Kamehameha I in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol.

Ocasio-Cortez noted on Thursday that Hawai’i’s statue was of Fr. Damien and not of “Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawai’i, the only Queen Regnant of Hawai’i,” implying that it was an example of “colonizers” being honored instead of historical figures who are native to states.

“This isn’t to litigate each and every individual statue,” she said, arguing that “patterns” among the “totality” of the statues in the Capitol reveal they honor “virtually all men, all white and mostly both.”

“This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like!” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It’s not radical or crazy to understand the influence white supremacist culture has historically had in our overall culture & how it impacts the present day.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s office told CNA that “it’s 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.”

Her office later added that “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-Hawai’ian, non-American was chosen as the statue to represent Hawai’i in the Capitol over other Hawai’ian natives who conducted great acts of good, and why so few women and people of color are represented in Capitol statues at all.”

St. Damien of Moloka’i was a religious priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who spent the last 16 years of his life caring for lepers in the Hawai’ian Kingdom.

He was born Jozef De Veuster in Belgium in 1840, and he entered the Picpus Fathers in 1859, taking the name Damien. He was sent to the mission in Hawai’i in 1864 and was ordained a priest that May.

Shortly after that, the Hawai’ian government and King Kamehameha V passed a law mandating that lepers quarantine themselves in an isolated colony on the island of Moloka’i. The local bishop asked for volunteers to minister to the leper colony, and Fr. Damien presented himself, beginning his work there in 1873.

Carter noted that the Hawai’ian government of the time “did not know how to deal with leprosy,” and that “no one wanted to deal with Kalaupapa [colony].”

Damien himself was afraid to go and minister to the lepers, Carter said, but “over a period of time — his journal is very clear, and the writings of the Hawai’ian people in that town are very clear — that he fell in love with the people.”

Eventually, Damien was given an ultimatum by his religious superior to either leave the colony or remain there permanently. He chose to stay.

The priest served the colony for the rest of his life, attending to both spiritual and temporal needs of the lepers. By 1884 he had contracted leprosy, and he continued to minister until his death in 1889.

St. Damien is beloved by native Hawai’ians, Carter said, and then-Princess Lili’uokalani — who Ocasio-Cortez implied should be given a statue instead of Damien — made Fr. Damien a Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalkaua in 1881, for his “efforts in alleviating the distresses and mitigating the sorrows of the unfortunate.”

Damien is also the only priest-saint in the Hawai’ian martyrology “that spoke the native Hawai’ian language,” Carter said. “He loved the Hawai’ian people, he embraced our culture,” he said, and in turn “he was part of our kingdom. He was one of us.”

The priest was canonized Oct. 11, 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI, who said that “his missionary activity, which gave him such joy, reached its peak in charity.”

On the occasion of the canonization, U.S. president Barack Obama expressed his “deep admiration for the life of Blessed Damien De Veuster.”

“Fr. Damien has also earned a special place in the hearts of Hawai’ians. I recall many stories from my youth about his tireless work there to care for those suffering from leprosy who had been cast out,” Obama, who was born on the Hawai’ian island of Oahu, said.

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

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