How can we define those moments in our lives that help shape our destiny? If it is possible to do so, I must acknowledge that a book about Father Damian by author Wilhelm Hünermann: Priester der Verbannten which I read when I was fifteen years old left an indelible impression on my soul. The story of Father Damien came into my life when I was becoming aware of social consciousness ... a time when young men and women are inspired to set ideals, to capture moments that will set our life on its own course. The only word that I can fairly use to explain how I felt is „stricken“. I was struck by the impact of Father Damien’s life as explosively as a clap of lighting strikes from a clear sky. In the same way a rich rainfall after a storm floods thirsty soil, feeds vegetation lying dormant, and encourages the seedlings to thrive and become fruitful, this book flooded my life with idealism and a thirst to learn more, and eventually it led to my own spiritual growth.
My beginnings were not so different from those of so many other young men. During the time of communist rule it was simply not possible to become a priest. I was young, and although it was my calling to study theology and foster a desire to work with those tormented by suffering and pain, the path for me was difficult, almost impossible. The ruling communist regime restricted access to the only two Catholic theological facilities available (Numerus Clausus). Somehow I was among the few chosen to attend, however after two years of study I was dismissed by the faculty with the explanation that it was not in the best interest of the socialist state that I study theology and become a priest. That, of course, did not prevent me from becoming a priest, however it did make it more complicated. Following my dismissal, I began a period of secret study, a period of voluntary emigration into Austria to officially study in Rome and work as a monastic priest in Vienna. However, Providence wished my untraditional path to remain so. After three years of priestly service, I decided to leave my vocation and marry. I began working at a hospital, primarily with those afflicted with cancer, and I soon found myself at home doing what I loved to do. Countless meetings with people in a critical situation, or their last moments of life, spontaneously steered me into situations in which I could fulfill my role as confessor by bestowing blessings and attending to them in their final moments. That was the time when I began to perceive my priesthood as my essential vocation, and it was given to me by God Himself.
After sixteen years of this work, I find that I am still profoundly inspired and spiritually strengthened by the presence of Father Damien. It was only a matter of time before I took my first journey to Molokai, to stand where he stood, to see what he had done, to quench my desire to learn all that I could about the man, the priest, the inspiration.
I knew would never have gotten permission for such a far-reaching and demanding itinerary as a monastic priest, however now, as a self-supporting man, I was free to follow my dream. It took some time to save and prepare for this arduous trip to distant Hawaii, but I did so with commitment. My first trip was in 1998, and it proved to be a life-changing voyage, both spiritual and personal. It was as if it had been my destiny to walk where Fr. Damien walked, see what he had accomplished, feel the hope and peace that he brought to a tormented, isolated people, and feed my desire not only to learn more, but also to bring what I learned to others.
Little did I know at the time that this trip to Hawaii would be the first of many, led by a set of circumstances that work together as well as the small wheels in a perfectly functioning Swiss watch do. I became acquainted with a missionary Catholic priest from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, Father Joseph Hendriks, from Belgium. He had been working in Hawaii since 1951 and was a great admirer of Fr. Damien. Because of his length of stay there, he knew the local habits and customs well. We became fast friends, and he kindly extended several invitations for me to return to Hawaii. With his help and gentle guidance I began to understand the ways of the people of Kalaupapa, the wonderful people who had been shut out by society for so long. The seeds of my book thus began. I was anxious to share what I was feeling with all who were as fascinated as I was.
I had occasion to contact Sr. Mary Laurence Hanley of New York, who authored Pilgrimage and Exile, a book about Mother Marianne of Molokai, to consult with her. She wrote to me: „If you want to get to know more about Father Damien and other missionaries and volunteers working in the colony, you need not travel to Molokai, it is enough for you to visit world archives where their letters and other historical materials are kept.“ I replied to her: „Yes, you are right. But for me it is equally important to get to know the country, the place, the culture, and the habits, and above all the people living on this territory. Experience on one’s own body the hot Hawaiian sun, tasting the fruits of the land, touching the wounds of people with Hansen’s Disease, looking into their eyes and listening in silence and humility to the voice of their heart...” It was through this contact that the groundwork was laid for meeting with others from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, specifically P. Paul Macken from Leuven, Belgium, who is one of the greatest contemporary specialists on the life of Father Damien, and Mr. Erik de Backer of Belgium and his wife, Odette. Mr. Erik is the last living member of Father Damien’s family. Not only did these incredible friendships enrich my own journey of knowing and understanding the psyche of those afflicted with Hansen’s Disease, but the warmth, generosity and assistance of these people was the source of much of my precious information.
On my first visit, I documented my encounters with photographs, which I developed into a slide presentation. I have always loved photography and found that it is a clear, vivid extension of what I was experiencing. In the days of my youth, under suppression from the period of deep totalitarian regime in the CSSR, I used to project films and slides with Christian themes throughout our republic. Photographs are my true and constant companion. I then created a ninety-minute collage, with music and live commentary about Molokai, to bring some awareness to others. While we may believe that our lives are stressed and we are overly-burdened, we need to be reminded that there are those who walk among us who carry burdens so much larger than ours, yet we do not even realize it. Perhaps it is self-absorption or simply lack of awareness. I felt it was my task to bring awareness to the forefront.
I used several slide projectors, computers, loudspeakers, music, and commentary in my presentations. Before I realized it, I had devoted six years to this beloved task. I worked full time, but managed to give 120 lectures in Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. I received invitations from Poland and the Ukraine, but the cost and time were prohibitive for me.
During all these years, I continued visiting Molokai. It was amazing! Each visit brought more knowledge of the life of Fr. Damien. In the first book that I read while a youngster I learned a little about Joseph Dutton, Mother Marianne, Fr. Lambert Conrardy. In my subsequent visits to Molokai, I learned so much more! Each bit of information only made me eager to learn more. There was Fr. Peter d’Orgeval, a French priest living in the colony from 1927 to 1947. I saw a letter that he wrote before his death to the people of Kalaupapa: „When I once die and the doctor autopsies my body, he will find the word ‘Kalaupapa’ deeply engraved into my heart.“ What powerful words! If I had not been there, I would never have had this moving experience, and so I decided to bring the lives of other missionaries to the minds and hearts of the Czech and Slovak readers who have not had the benefit of books outlining the works of these courageous people.
I received immeasurable help in my research from Fr. André Mark from the Paris Archives. I hope that my attempt to bring information to people who, like me, are from a stifling communist regime, will be interesting. I devoted much time and painstaking work to compile the information. Knowing full well my responsibility to bring a clear, truthful and factual enlightening to everyone reading my book, I undertook a long period of careful research. I visited all the muse-ums and archives in which I was able to study original materials, places that include Leuven, Belgium, the Archive of the General House of the Congregation in Rome, the Archive of the Provincial House in Paris, and the archives in Hawaii: The medical library, state archives, the University of Hawaii, and the Bishop Museum.
In spite of the fact that it was my fascination with the life of Father Damien that first brought me to Molokai, it was the people to whom he ministered that brought me back time and time again. It was not an easy task to become familiar with them, to be accepted by them, and to be considered a friend to them; however, I found their presence made Molokai more spiritual and fulfilling than any other place I visited while an incidental tourist around the world. Even though they inhabited, by circumstance, a small piece of earth less than fifteen square kilometers, they had created a simple, modest but fulfilling life. When one looks into their eyes, even though they are of different religious persuasions, one can see there is something that binds them: their total and complete faith. They are, quite simply, one true, large family.
My book has two parts. In the first I discuss the disease, its history, and how it migrated to Hawaii. I outline the first community of this colony, and of course, Father Damien, the missionaries, laymen, and volunteers. I hope I have brought to you a palette of colors that shows the depth of the unselfish love, immeasurable sacrifice, and spirit of hope that these people have in their lives, despite suffering from Hansen’s Disease. Perhaps I can share with you the inspiration I have enjoyed in my own spirituality, inspiration, that I received from Father Damien’s works and from his wonderful colony in Molokai.
The second part of my book is what I call a „mosaic of information“, gleaned from those I had the privilege of talking with, visiting with, and spiritually growing with. I am not a journalist; therefore my first attempt at documenting the life I found there was rather rudimentary. I did not use a tape recorder. I wanted them to speak freely and not feel my presence as an intrusion in their lives. I listened for days on end to what they had to say, wherever their conversation would lead them. Later I would sit for hours and make notes by relying on my memories, my impressions. Now I realize that many thoughts escaped me, but the essence of my visit was vivid and therefore I was anxious to document it.
Lastly, my book is bound with my interpretation of the presence of Father Damien. ?ina Hemolele ... „Holy Land – Molokai“ is a Ha-waiian term which I think accurately describes this place on earth. In its beginning, this colony was home to thousands, however today about forty inhabitants remain in exile on this beautiful isle. The soil under their feet is moist with tears of sadness, loss, loneliness, fear, and anguish. The same earth has soaked up the blood from their festering wounds, and cloaked underneath that soil are their mortal remains. Every lump of soil speaks of their suffering, but more so of their hope with the gentle guidance and ministry of those like Father Damien, Joseph Dutton, Mother Marianne, Father Lambert Conrardy, and Father Peter d’Orgeval, and countless, nameless others. There is a deep mystery here ... it is almost as if Molokai were radiating with immense energy and spirituality that wraps itself around a wounded spirit and brings it home to heal.
This place is truly deserving of the name ?ina Hemolele.