Damien of Molokai . . . With Music By Tom Russell

Tom Russell’s concept album The Rose of Roscrae tells the story of an young man who flees Ireland to become an outlaw on the American frontier.  During the outlaw’s travels, he hears about Father Damien, a priest in Hawaii who works with lepers.  And he dreams of joining him.

Father Damien was a real person who was born as Jozef De Veuster on January 3, 1840.  As portrayed in Russell’s story, Damien was a Roman Catholic Priest from Belgium.  And he did leave his native Belgium to minister to people with leprosy in what then was the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Russell’s songs about Damien led me to want to know more about him. Lately, I have been reading The Life and Letters of Father Damien, Apostle of the Lepers.

Father Damien became known around the world for his work even while he was still alive.  With the fame also came some criticism, often highlighting the struggles between the natives of the islands and the influence of the Europeans and Americans.

Tom Russell’s Father Damien

In Tom Russell’s songs about Father Damien, he makes reference to the criticisms.  And he also mentions that poet Robert Louis Stevenson defended Damien.  It is true that Stevenson, who visited Hawaii after Damien’s death, became an admirer of Damien’s work and wrote about him.

In “The Hands of Damien,” Russell’s protagonist JohnnyBehind-the-Deuce reacts to hearing about the work of Father Damien. The discovery that someone like Damien exists helps Johnny begin to seek his own redemption.

In another song, Johnny hits a low point and imagines seeking guidance from Father Damien.  The song is “Damien (A Crust of Bread, A Slice of Fish, A Cup of Water).”

Tom Russell wrote about “Damien” on his Facebook page:

“We read “Damien the Leper,” in high school. Written by Mia Farrow’s father, film director John Farrow. I always thought this guy took it to the Western limit…the edge…a leper colony on Molokai. He was from Belgium. Robert Lewis Stevenson defends him. Johnny Behind the Deuce is gonna join him but never makes it . . . he returns to Ireland.”

I was a little surprised to read Russell reveal Johnny never made it to meet Father Damien. As in all song cycles, the story is a little cryptic at times.  But I had imagined that Johnny actually had gone to meet Father Damien at some point in his life.

After working with people with leprosy for sixteen years, Father Damien eventually contracted leprosy himself, dying of the disease on April 15, 1889.

Tom Russell is not the only fan of Father Damien. India’s Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by this “martyr of charity.” April 15 is now a holiday known as Father Damien Day in Hawaii.   Father Damien was eventually canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009.

For more on Father Damien, the following video summarizes his life story.

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