I looked at Father Damien, and for the first time I thought about his family. It must have been a long time since he had seen them—it was now nearly ten years since that day when I first saw him get off the ship in Honolulu. That was before the government had even created this leprosy prison.
Why had he come to Hawai‘i? And especially to Moloka‘i?
"Did that bishop send you here?" I asked him.
The Father stopped digging and looked at me then. "The bishop asked several of us to take turns," he said. "And so I volunteered."
"Oh." I wondered if that meant he would be leaving after all. "When will it be someone else’s turn?" I asked. "Will you go back to Kohala?"
Father Damien shook his head. "I cannot leave my children in these conditions."
"But you don’t have leprosy. What if you never get to leave?"
Damien turned away from me then, and I saw his eyes moving about, looking over the scattered cottages of Kalawao. "If I never leave this place," he said softly, "I will be the happiest missionary in the world."
Happy? In Kalawao? Never seeing his family again? Never traveling to Honolulu or Kohala? How could anyone love God that much? How could anyone love me that much? I just didn’t understand.
"Pardon me for the questions, Father, but, but … do you plan to die here?"
Damien looked up to the pali then, and I could see that he was remembering something. "I died before I came," he said. "When I took my religious vows, I prostrated myself before the altar and my brothers placed a funeral shroud over me. On that day I died to my own will. God’s will became my will."
These words from my novel are based on a letter Damien wrote to his brother soon after his arrival.
"So remembering that on the day of my profession I had already put myself under the funeral pall, I offered myself to his lordship to meet, if he thought it well, this second death."
The truth is, Father Damien did contract leprosy. And then, some time after he knew he had leprosy, he wrote home again.
"The joy and contentment of heart... make me consider myself the happiest missioner in the world. Consequently, the sacrifice of my health...appears after all but a slight affair, and even profitable for me."
On October 11, 2009 he will be canonized. From that day on he will officially be Saint Damien.