Father Damien’s Legacy

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: For the past 50 years, many churches and health organizations have observed the last Sunday in January as the World Day of Leprosy. Hansen’s disease, as it’s also known, is now curable, but it still strikes a quarter of a million people each year. Remembering leprosy victims recalls the life of Father Damien, a Belgian priest who cared for the outcasts in a leprosy colony in Hawaii, and who eventually died of leprosy himself. Father Damien is expected to be named a saint later this year [Editor's note: Father Damien will be canonized in Rome on October 11, 2009] and Lucky Severson tells his story.

LUCKY SEVERSON: This place may look like a slice of heaven, but to many who lived here it was hell on earth. This is Kalaupapa, which was and still is a leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. It is an extremely isolated place, forgotten by the civilized world for over 100 years. That may soon change because of the honor about to be bestowed on a priest long ago who helped the diseased of Kalaupapa when no one else would. His name was Father Damien de Veuster, a missionary priest from Belgium. He is remembered by another Catholic priest, Father Clyde Guerreiro.

Father Clyde GuerreiroFather CLYDE GUERREIRO: It’s the story, the classic story of heroic virtue versus the worst we can be as human beings.

SEVERSON: Father Damien called the numerous cemeteries on Kalaupapa “gardens of the dead.” Almost all of the 8,000 souls buried in these gardens were victims of Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. Its victims were first exiled here beginning in 1866, forcefully separated from their loved ones, treated as criminals, literally thrown off the boat near this rocky beach.

Fr. GUERREIRO: The schooner would park out there, and they’d just throw them over, and if they survived, well, then they lived here.

SEVERSON: When Father Damien arrived in 1873, those thrown from the boat — the castaways — lived under the most primitive conditions, without potable drinking water, in shacks they constructed out of sticks and dried leaves. Food was scarce. Doctors would occasionally leave medicine but refuse to touch the patients. Survival was all that mattered, and the place became a lawless wild land. Father Damien would change all of that. Father Lane Akiona grew up on Molokai, and grew up admiring Father Damien.

Father Lane AkionaFather LANE AKIONA: He was the builder. He was the coffin builder. He was the grave digger. He did the services. He anointed them. He was their nurse and doctor. He did practically everything for them.

SEVERSON: And when Father Damien was 49, he died for them, a victim of leprosy. He had simply treated too many sores and infections. His grave is located next to a church he preached in. Most of those buried on Kalaupapa died in the early 1940s, before the new sulfone drugs were developed that controlled the infectious disease and stopped its contagion. Still, it wasn’t until 1969, a quarter of a century later, that the law ordering forced exile was finally lifted. Dr. Walter Chang says victims of Hansen’s disease have always been treated with callous disregard.

Dr. WALTER CHANG: From the Bible and from historical accounts, leprosy was considered a very ghastly disease. Lepers were detested. They were stoned. They were even killed.

Dr. Walter ChangSEVERSON: Today, there are only about 20 patients living in Kalaupapa where there is now a hospital, and care is always available for those still afflicted with the disease. They were sentenced here. Some don’t need to stay here any longer, but they do. Others stay because they can’t leave the stigma behind. Melly Watanuki has been here since 1969 because it’s her home.

(to Melly Watanauki): Are you still sick?


SEVERSON: But you have to take medicine every day, right?

Ms. WATANUKI: Yeah, that was way before when I would get sick, I got to take the medicine for cure.

SEVERSON: But you don’t have to take the medicine anymore?


SEVERSON: The place is still almost as inaccessible as it was in the 1800s. No one is allowed in without government permission. There are only two ways onto the peninsula: an up-and-down eight-minute flight over the worlds tallest sea cliffs, which separate the colony from the outside world, or a steep mule train ride down from what is known as topside. Audrey Toguchi, a retired schoolteacher, has made the journey from her home in Honolulu five times, always to pray at Father Damien’s gravesite.

Audrey ToguchiAUDREY TOGUCHI: Oh, he’s helped me a lot. He really has. And so how else can I look at him but as my hero?

Dr. CHANG (pointing to x-ray): See how vicious it looks? They look like all kinds of different criminals.

SEVERSON: If Father Damien was Audrey’s hero before, she’s convinced he became her lifesaver after Dr. Walter Chang, a general surgeon, diagnosed her with a very rare kind of aggressive cancer of the fat tissues 10 years ago.

Dr. CHANG: You know, I told her, “You need chemotherapy. Without chemotherapy,” I said, “the likelihood of you surviving a long time is extremely small.”

(to Ms. Toguchi): How long did he give you to live?

Ms. TOGUCHI: Well, probably about five or six months.

Dr. CHANG: Well, she told me very calmly, “Doctor, I’m not going to accept chemotherapy. I’m going to Molokai to pray to Father Damien.” And I replied, “Mrs. Toguchi, prayers are very nice, but you still need chemotherapy.” And she said, “Doctor, I’m going to pray only.”

SEVERSON: And so Audrey made one more trip to Father Damien’s grave, and here’s what she said.

Ms. TOGUCHI: “Father Damien, I have all these problems, and I really need your help to intercede, and dear Lord please, please help me.”

Dr. CHANG (pointing to x-rays): OK, this is Mrs. Toguchi’s x-ray before she went to Molokai. This is the cancer spread to her lungs.

SEVERSON: But after she returned from Father Damien’s graveside, the x-rays showed her cancer was receding. Eventually it disappeared altogether.

Ms. TOGUCHI: And Dr. Chang said, “What did you do?” I said I asked Father Damien for help.

Dr. CHANG: I said to myself, “This is a very remarkable event. It has never happened before in as far as I can detect from the history of medicine.” So I said to myself, “You know, Mrs. Toguchi,” I said, “this is so remarkable you ought to report it to your — people in your religion.”

SEVERSON: So Mrs. Toguchi contacted the Vatican and sent along Dr. Chang’s meticulously detailed record of her recovery, which was thoroughly investigated by church authorities, who eventually declared it a miracle. Now Father Damien is scheduled to become, officially, Saint Damien.

Dr. CHANG: The true skeptic will call this a random coincidence. The true believer, the truly faithful, will call this a miracle. I think I’ll have to straddle that line and call it a complete spontaneous or complete and permanent spontaneous regression of cancer.

SEVERSON: The canonization process is not quick or easy. Father Damien was first officially venerated for his work in Kalaupapa over 100 years ago. Then, to become a saint, he needed to perform two miracle healings authenticated by the best science of the times. The first, many years ago, was a French nun. The second, in 1999, was Audrey Toguchi.

The news that Father Damien was going to become Saint Damien did not come as a surprise to the patients still living here. To them, he’s always been a saint, one who would not recognize Kalaupapa today. The place seems like an island paradise with well-groomed bungalows, a grocery store, and gas station. It’s a quiet place, but that may change after the Vatican formally canonizes Father Damien.

SEVERSON: Kalaupapa has always been considered a special place. There are stories of natives making spiritual pilgrimages here 500 years ago. Clarence and Ivy Kahilihaiwa have been here more than 50 years, and they agree with their ancestors.

(to Clarence Kahilihiwa): Is this a spiritual place here?

CLARENCE KAHILIHIWA: It is more than that. The “manna,” the spirit is here, I guess, because of our ancestors who died here way back.

Fr. AKIONA: To know that so many people went there, feeling helpless — no sense of hope. And here comes this missionary from a foreign land and was willing to do everything for them. It is a spiritual place.

SEVERSON: As long as there are patients here, the government will continue to restrict the number of visitors. But the patients are getting older. The youngest is almost 70, and when they’re gone, only the “gardens of the dead” will speak of Kalaupapa’s dark, painful history.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in Kaluapapa, Hawaii.

  • Walter Y.M. Chang, M.D.

    It should be emphasized that it was the METASTATIC LUNG CANCERS that disappeared, without any treatment, after her prayers for intercessional help.

    The PRIMARY LIPOSARCOMA of THE GLUTEAL AREA had been resected 8 months earlier (01/09/1998) and then radiated. When the pulmonary metastases were first detected on 09/03/1998, eight months later, she refused chemotherapy and went to Molokai to pray. Amazingly, then, without any treatment for the spread of the lung cancers, the maignancies disappeared. Imaging studies since May of 1999, until the present, have revealed no evidence of any recurrent liposarcoma in her body. She has remained free of cancer for nearly ten years now.

    I mention these points because of the clarification needed due to the confusion and errors in the Wikipedia article on the canonization process of Fr. Damien. I am not sure why there is some confusion becuse the scientific paper published in the October, 2000, issue of the Hawaii Medical Journal, clearly described the facts. Anyone who had reviewed the published medical paper should not have been confused.

    There are no claims about miracles from this writer. For the “true believer”, this remarkable event of a complete and permanent spontaneous regression of her metastatic cancers in her lungs is a “miracle”. For the “true skeptic”, it is a “random event”, albeit one that has never been previously described in medical literature for a metastatic pleomorphic pulmonary liposarcoma.

  • Mozlink
  • John-Roger Spofforth

    Before ascribing regenerative powers to Audrey Toguchi’s four visits to Father Damien’s grave,
    note that she traveled over the mountain pass.
    Those trips in themselves could have ended her
    lung cancer by her heavy breathing required on
    her trips, and breathing in aromas or certain
    plants along the mountainous route. Had Audrey
    been flown in, her lung cancer might not have
    been healed? I write this from the perspective
    of an atheist Buddhist.

  • Walter Y.M. Chang, M.D.

    Mr. Spofforth,

    Mrs Toguchi traveled by plane each time she visited Kalaupapa. She is afraid of heights and was quite weak when she had the metastatic cancer in her lungs. Consequently, she had no desire to travel on the steep Pali trail, a bumpy ride on animals, from “topside” down to the peninsula.

    Interestingly, if you will read about “Case #2″ in my scientific paper entitled “Complete Spontaneous Regression of Cancer, Four Case Reports, Review of Literature, and Discussion of Possible Mechanisms Involved”, published in the October, 2000, issue of the Hawaii Medical Journal, you will find that this second patient reported therein had also a “spontaneous regression” or complete and permanent disappearance of his recurrent esophageal cancer, after he prayed to Buddha for help. Again, this surgeon makes no claims about “miracles”, but has only recorded and reported factual material that can be verified with biopsies, imaging studies, and by other consultants and experts.

    Walter Y.M. Chang, M. D.

  • Lynn A. pARY m.d.

    mY CONGRATULATIONS to Dr, Walter Chang. A truely dedicated and exacting surgeon who documented his case very well ,indeed.

  • Walter Y.M. Chang,M.D.


  • Xrystina

    Hey, i know these people!

  • Tony

    Have any studies been performed on the DNA, blood, or other areas of these 2 cancer patients? Surely something can be found in their physiology – if one looks deep enough – that beat the cancer in their bodies and could possibly be used to extrapolate some kind of cure or better treatment for cancer?

  • Rev. Bob Braman

    Either PBS or another perceptive broadcaster produced a one-man, black-and-white, surrealistic play about Father Damien many years ago. The excellence of the production and the poignancy of the story are still deeply rooted in me. I was raised a Congregationalist, and it was our Congregational missionaries whom Father Damien had to battle as mightily as any other foe. By the grace of God many of us have repented of that opposition and join in the spirit of Father Damien as we serve today. Thank you for an excellent article.

  • Walter Y.M. Chang, M.D.

    Mr. Tony;
    While I am only a surgeon, it appears to me that the answer to complete and permanent spontaneous regression of metastatic or recurrent cancer probably lies in the realm of molecular biology, immune and genetic studies, areas more arcane than I can hope to digest in my old age. There must be something in the patients’ bodies that could have affected the metastatic or recurrent cancer that allowed these malignancies to disappear without any treatment. Whether it is something that has to do with their immune system or something that changed the oncogene so that the abnormal proteins or cancer cells were no longer produced or something else that created these amazing changes is unknown to me. It will remain for much smarter people than I am to eventually solve this problem, hopefully.

    I just had the good fortune and great honor of being a witness to these remarkable events and merely had the presence of mind to assiduously document, record, and preserve the evidence (imaging studies, biopsies, consultations, etc.), and to report the facts so that these events could withstand the most rigorous scrutiny in any tribunal.

    In the discussion portion of my scientific paper, published in the October, 2000 issue of the Hawaii Medical Journal, there are many theories mentioned.

    Walter Y.M. Chang, M.D., D.Sc.(Surg.), FACS

  • Ruth Elsbernd

    A wonderful story! Religion and Ethics gives inspiring stories.

  • Walter Y.M. Chang, M.D.

    If you know Dr. Parry and me, then we must have met in the distant past, perhaps during our surgical residencies, at Temple Univ. Medical Center in Phila. Maybe you could mention you real name. Aloha, Dr. Walter C.

  • T K Sakazaki

    Truly an inspirational story! May God continue to bless us through divine works of mercy.

  • Dean Kapuni Harvest

    Like so many other descendants of those who gave their lives at Kalaupapa, Molokai. The Kahu Alii who had to oversee these terrible deaths of so many native Hawaiians and others was heart wrenching. This is the first time I speak of the many stories that my Grandfather recalled. With the wailing of the wind, the rushing of a wave against the rocks, in the silence of nothingness, the souls of so many will be blessed and finally laid to rest. For their love of their “Father Damien”, will be one in Heaven once more. Uwe ka maka eha. Uwe o ka lani e. Uwe o ka po’e o Molokai! E-O Kalaupapa, E-O.

  • artist

    Great Story !! What a great man !

  • joanne

    God bless Fr. Damien!

  • Lynn A. Parry MD

    I would ike to comment to Dr. Walter Chang. Thank you !

  • D.Sudhakar Reddy

    Fr.Damien who worked and cared, among the lepers.Catholic priest offered his services in Honolulu.
    Fr.Damien became a victim of leprosy,and died at the age of 49.Jesus said Love one another as i have
    loved you.He loved and cared and sacrificed his life.,in the service of Humanity.
    May his soul rest in peace.