E WORKED FOR some years on other islands in the Pacific, but it happened that he was one day in 1873 present at the dedication of a chapel in the island of Maui, when the bishop was lamenting that it was impossible for him to send a missioner to the lepers at Molokai and still less to provide them with a pastor. He had only been able to send them occasional and temporary help. Some young priests had just arrived in Hawaii for mission work, and Father Damien instantly spoke.
"Monseigneur," said he, "here are your new missioners; one of them could take my district, and if you will be kind enough to allow it, I will go to Molokai and labour for the poor lepers whose wretched state of bodily and spiritual misfortune has often made my heart bleed within me."
His offer was accepted, and that very day, without any farewells, he embarked on a boat that was taking some cattle to the leper settlement. When he first put his foot on the island he said to himself, "Now Joseph, my boy, this is your life-work."
I did not find one person in the Sandwich Islands who had the least doubt as to leprosy being contagious, though it is possible to be exposed to the disease for years without contracting it. Father Damien told me that he had always expected that he should sooner or later become a leper, though exactly how he caught it he does not know. But it was not likely that he would escape, as he was constantly living in a polluted atmosphere, dressing the sufferers' sores, washing their bodies, visiting their death-beds, and even digging their graves. In his own words is a report of the state of things at Molokai sixteen years ago, and I think a portion will be interesting:
"By special providence of our Divine Lord, who during His public life showed a particular sympathy for the lepers, my way was traced toward Kalawao in May, 1873. I was then thirty-three years of age, enjoying a robust good health.
"About eighty of the lepers were in the hospital; the others, with a very few Kokuas (helpers), had taken their abode farther up toward the valley. They had cut down the old pandanus groves to build their houses, though a great many had nothing but branches of castor-oil trees with which to construct their small shelters. These frail frames were covered with ki leaves or with sugar-cane leaves, the best ones with pili grass. I, myself, was sheltered during several weeks under the single pandanus-tree which is preserved up to the present in the churchyard. Under such primitive roofs were living without distinction of age or sex, old or new cases, all more or less strangers one to another, those unfortunate outcasts of society. They passed their time with playing cards, hula (native dances), drinking fermented ki-root beer, home-made alcohol, and with the sequels of all this. Their clothes were far from being clean and decent, on account of the scarcity of water, which had to be brought at that time from a great distance. Many a time in fulfilling my priestly duty at their domiciles I have been compelled to run outside to breathe fresh air. To counteract the bad smell I made myself accustomed to the use of tobacco, whereupon the smell of the pipe preserved me somewhat from carrying in my clothes the noxious odour of the lepers. At that time the progress of the disease was fearful, and the rate of mortality very high. The miserable condition of the settlement gave it the name of a living graveyard, which name, I am happy to state, is to-day no longer applicable to our place."
In 1874 a "cona" (south) wind blew down most of the lepers' wretched, rotten abodes, and the poor sufferers lay shivering in the wind and rain, with clothes and blankets wet through. In a few days the grass beneath their sleeping-mats began to emit a "very unpleasant vapour." "I at once," says Father Damien, "called the attention of our sympathising agent to the fact, and very soon there arrived several schooner-loads of scantling to build solid frames with, and all lepers in distress received, on application, the necessary material for the erection of decent houses." Friends sent them rough boards and shingles and flooring. Some of the lepers had a little money, and hired carpenters. For those without means the priest, with his leper boys, did the work of erecting a good many small houses.
"I remember well that when I arrived here," again says Father Damien, "the poor people were without any medicines, with the exception of a few physics and their own native remedies. It was a common sight to see people going round with fearful ulcers, which, for the want of a few rags or a piece of lint and a little salve, were left exposed. Not only were their sores neglected but any one getting a fever, or any of the numerous ailments that lepers are heir to, was carried off for want of some simple medicine.
"Previous to my arrival here it was acknowledged and spoken of in the public papers as well as in private letters that the greatest want at Kalawao was a spiritual leader. It was owing in a great measure to this want that vice as a general rule existed instead of virtue, and degradation of the lowest type went ahead as a leader of the community. ... When once the disease prostrated them women and children were often cast out, and had to find some other shelter. Sometimes they were laid behind a stone wall, and left there to die, and at other times a hired hand would carry them to the hospital.
"As there were so many dying people, my priestly duty toward them often gave me the opportunity to visit them at their domiciles, and although my exhortations were especially addressed to the prostrated often they would fall upon the ears of public sinners, who little by little became conscious of the consequences of their wicked lives, and began to reform, and thus, with the hope in a merciful Saviour, gave up their bad habits.
"Kindness to all, charity to the needy, a sympathising hand to the sufferers and the dying, in conjunction with a solid religious instruction to my listeners, have been my constant means to introduce moral habits among the lepers. I am happy to say that, assisted by the local administration, my labours here, which seemed to be almost in vain at the beginning, have, thanks to a kind Providence, been greatly crowned with success."
The water supply of Molokai was a pleasant subject with Father Damien. When he first arrived the lepers could only obtain water by carrying it from the gulch on their poor shoulders; they had also to take their clothes to some distance when they required washing, and it was no wonder that they lived in a very dirty state. He was much exercised about the matter, and one day, to his great joy, he was told that at the end of a valley called Waihanau there was a natural reservoir. He set out with two white men and some of his boys, and travelled up the valley till he came with delight to a nearly circular basin of most delicious ice-cold water. Its diameter was seventy-two feet by fifty-five, and not far from the bank they found, on sounding, that it was eighteen feet deep. There it lay at the foot of a high cliff, and he was informed by the natives that there had never been a drought in which this basin had dried up. He did not rest till a supply of waterpipes had been sent them, which he and all the able lepers went to work and laid. Henceforth clear sweet water has been available for all who desire to drink, to wash, or to bathe.