He went into a forsaken island full of lepers. No laws. No religion. Death and disaster prevailed. These people had been sent there to starve to death on lonely stretches of land where they attempted to build huts with hands lent ineffective by leprosy. Fresh water was several miles away and they could not walk. There were children, women, old men, young men, little girls, little boys..but they had a common destiny – To die of starvation, cold, disease, loneliness and heartbreak. Separated from kith and kin these lepers were dumped by the dozen on to the island along with some tools and food that was near-decay. The tools were not of any use because they could not use their rotting hands. There was the smell of death in the air. It was loathsome. There was fear. Everyday they died, choicelessly. The bodies were left out in the open. Even the ones who came in the initial stages of the disease worsened and died. The government and the people forgot all about them. For centuries, the island of Molokai in Hawaii was the dumping ground of lepers. It was hell. There was no escape, no redemption, no cure, no love, no life, no hope. There was death and disease. No choices. Until….
This man made a choice….He was the only man in his right health and right mind that began living on the island…living on the island of death out of choice. he was father Damien, a Catholic missionary from Europe. He had been apprentice under a carpenter as a boy. This was the skill that was to change the life of the forsaken lepers in Molokai. His initial task was to establish order. The people had no food, no clothes and no shelter. There was no law. There was chaos. There was pain, loneliness, suffering, decay, dirt, litter, pain and death. There was no code of conduct. No future. No need to be orderly or virtuous. The society had forsaken them…so they will not retain its memories, its laws, its judgement..they will die like animals. His task was to restore hope and stability. He single-handedly (with help from a few lepers) repaired the existing chapel which was in shambles.
He lived on the island for 16 years. In his period, the ban was lifted on the island and travelers were allowed to and from the island. When Father Damien tried to go out to gather some help, he was rudely turned away. He was warned that he would be locked up in a cell if he dared come out again. Everybody believed that he had contracted leprosy. Father Damien continuously bombarded the authorities with letters, day after day and badgered them for facilities, for raw materials, for equipments and tools, for clothes, for funds and so on. The government never realized that this kind of a problem would arise. After all, it was ridiculous that the lepers must want to have equipments, clothes and so on. What were they even thinking! Finally they relented, grudgingly.
With the little resources provided, most of which were damaged Father Damien made the place to be like this…
Many children were afflicted by leprosy…many of them were orphans who were being abused greatly before Father Damien landed there..
This is the girls choir he made..
Finally…Father Damien contracted the deadly disease…the government refused to take him to Honolulu to treat him…later when they changed their minds the Father refused. He had spent 16 years of his life in the island..with people who had leprosy. He had treated their wounds, been with them, loved them, laughed with them, cried with them, lived with them..he did not fear the disease or death.He had made over 1600 coffins for friends in the island who had died of the same disease..he had buried each one of them. His last days he spent in happiness and cheer. He never stopped working even when his face was full of tumours, his left leg fell off his body and his whole physique was in a terrible condition. Even till his last moments he was uttering words of comfort in whispers, supervising activities, treating patients, until he was bed-ridden…
This is the man…. who died for a cause..
He died peacefully at the age of 49….leaving a question for many many including me, who complain of little things, who are selfish, who break hearts, who are cruel, who have a violence in their deepest feelings, who have meaningless hatred governing their lives, who have no love, who have no smiles for the weak, who have big lives with lots of objects but are as empty as can be inside their hearts…He has left this question – What is life worth living for?