The Doubter Who Defended Damien of Molokai

One of St. Damien of Molokai's strongest defenders was the non-Catholic novelist Robert Louis Stevenson.

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That Robert Louis Stevenson had a not-so-secret sympathy with Catholicism is evident in his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, where he describes a visit to the Trappist monastery Notre-Dame des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snows).

I recall the white-washed chapel, the hooded figures in the choir, the lights alternately occluded and revealed, the strong manly singing, the silence that ensued, the sight of cowled heads bowed in prayer, and then the clear trenchant beating of the bell, breaking in to show that the last office was over and the hour of sleep had come; and when I remember, I am not surprised that I made my escape into the court with somewhat whirling fancies, and stood like a man bewildered in the windy starry night.

An Irishman who was there, he says, “when he had heard of my religious weakness, had only patted me upon the shoulder and said, ‘You must be a Catholic and come to heaven.’” A priest making a retreat there was alarmed with his lack of faith and told him God had led him to the monastery to become Catholic. Stevenson relates that he attempted to end the argument by saying that his mother and father would not accept his change. “Your father and mother?” cried the priest, “Very well; you will convert them in their turn when you go home.” 

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Stevenson’s relationship with his father was famously difficult, and his reaction was this: “I think I see my father’s face! I would rather tackle the Gaetulian lion in his den than embark on such an enterprise against the family theologian.”

The conversation reached an awkward end, but Stevenson admired the priest’s stubborn interest in his soul. 

Honest man! He was no dangerous deceiver, but a country parson, full of zeal and faith. Long may he tread Gevaudan with his kilted skirts—a man strong to walk and strong to comfort his parishioners in death! I dare say he would beat bravely through a snowstorm where his duty called him.

Stevenson showed a similar sympathy to stolid clerical sternness in a letter he wrote concerning St. Damien of Molokai. A Presbyterian minister in Honolulu, a certain Reverend Dr. Hyde (no connection with Dr. Jekyll, because that story was written before Stevenson met the man) had written to a colleague in San Francisco, Reverend H.B. Gage, about the fame of Fr. Damien. Reverend Gage then had Hyde’s letter published. Stevenson read it in a newspaper that had arrived in Sydney, Australia. 

Hyde criticized the saint as 

a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted…he did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself)…He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health…He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life. Yours, etc., C.M. Hyde

Stevenson was incensed that Hyde had maligned Fr. Damien and decided to answer Hyde in an open letter, “in the interest of all mankind, and the cause of public decency in every quarter of the world.” Reverend Hyde had received Stevenson in his house, but even his hospitality could not make the writer hold back in a blistering letter that its author paid to publish. Stevenson was incensed that Hyde had maligned Fr. Damien and decided to answer Hyde in an open letter, “in the interest of all mankind, and the cause of public decency in every quarter of the world.” Tweet This

In the heat of his righteous indignation, Stevenson wrote a classic takedown of the minister reminiscent of Cicero’s speeches against Catiline or Marc Antony. His arguments are not completely free of a whiff of ad hominem, especially since he thinks that Hyde’s motivation was jealousy of Damien’s Christian virtue. It is an old saw that the Protestant missionaries who went to Hawaii went there to do good and did very well. Stevenson says that “your sect (and remember, as far as any sect avows me, it is mine) has not done ill in a worldly sense in the Hawaiian Kingdom. 

Stevenson said the outbreak of leprosy was an opportunity for the Presbyterians to show generosity, but “your Church and Damien’s were in Hawaii upon a rivalry to do well: to help, to edify, to set divine examples.” Hyde’s denomination “failed and Damien succeeded.” Stevenson was surprised that instead of keeping quiet the man would resort to “collect and propagate gossip” about someone who had “toiled and rotted in that pigsty of his under the cliffs of Kalawao.”

The famous author criticized an unrealistic portrait of Damien given by some Catholic writers and says Hyde has made himself the devil’s advocate for the canonization process that will inevitably occur for the apostle to the lepers. “For if that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H.B. Gage.”

Stevenson said it was his “inclement destiny to become acquainted, not with Damien but with Dr. Hyde.” When he visited Molokai, Damien was already in the grave. But the author talked with many people who knew the saint and were very frank about his faults. The conception of Damien given to him by those who knew the priest, said Stevenson, was that he was 

a man of the peasant class, certainly of the peasant type: shrewd, ignorant and bigoted, yet with an open mind, and capable of receiving and digesting a reproof if it were bluntly administered; superbly generous in the least thing as well as in the greatest, and as ready to give his last shirt (although not without human grumbling) as he had been to sacrifice his life.

There was a sum of money given to Damien for the lepers, and apparently at first he proposed to use it only for his Catholic flock; “but after a long, plain talk, he admitted his error.” Stevenson speaks of how the saint was “much obliged” for the correction given him and was an example of a person who was open to changing direction if that was warranted—not a saint who did not make mistakes, but one who learned from them.

Responding point by point to Hyde’s characterization of Damien, Stevenson corrects some facts and turns some of the insults around. Was Damien headstrong? “I thank God for his strong head and heart.” Was he bigoted? “His intense and narrow faith, wrought potently for good and strengthened him to be one of the world’s heroes and exemplars.”

About the charge of Damien’s “impurity,” Stevenson asks for some proof. He had never heard about that, even from people who did not especially care for the saint. “Why was this never mentioned?” He said that he had heard it said that Damien had contracted leprosy by sexual relations, a myth based on bad medical understanding. When he heard it in the Apia bar in Samoa, one of the patrons called out the purveyor of gossip saying, “if the story were a thousand times true, can’t you see you are a million times a lower [expletive deleted by Stevenson] for daring to repeat it?”

If Hyde had heard something like that said of his own father, would he have repeated it so carelessly? Stevenson ends powerfully: 

Well, the man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father and the father of the man in the Apia bar, and the father of all who love goodness; and he was your father, too, if God had given you the grace to see it.

The letter is a beautiful example of the power of Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing and makes me hopeful about his salvation. Poor Dr. Hyde. A personal letter of detraction and calumny is all he is known for now. What a lesson for all of us about prejudice and about the wisdom of Jesus’ saying, “Judge not” (Matthew 7:1).

Author

  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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