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Locally he was known as Makua Kamiano. On Sunday, the day after the state’s annual Ironman Triathlon, Pope Benedykt will celebrate his canonization.
On Saturday, October 10, the Ironman Triathlon will take place in Hawaii. In a contest that tests human endurance, the athletes, without taking breaks, will swim 2.4 miles in the open ocean, bike 112 miles, and run a marathon (26 miles). It has been held annually since 1978.
I submit to you, however, that the first Ironman of Hawaii met the test of human endurance well before 1978. His name was Makua Kamiano and he lived in Hawaii from 1864 until his death in 1889.
The world learned of Makua Kamiano’s exploits for the first time in detail in a 1937 biography by John Farrow that was subsequently translated into 13 languages. It remains in print. (If Farrow is known at all today, it is as father of the actress Mia Farrow, wife to André Previn and Frank Sinatra, and cohabitor with Woody Allen.) John Farrow (1904-1963) wrote short stories, novels, biographies, and 28 screenplays, and he directed 46 films. For his work in Around the World in Eighty Days and Wake Island, he was nominated for Academy Awards.
An Australian who had run off to sea, Farrow had sailed throughout the Pacific. After additional adventures, he found himself in the early 1920s on one of the Society Islands (of which Tahiti is a part) waiting for a ship when he befriended a young man of about 25 years of age with leprosy. The young man introduced him to a retired sailor from Hawaii who regaled him with stories about a leper colony and a man Farrow thought fictional named Kamiano. Whenever the old sailor spoke the name Kamiano, he half-genuflected and looked heavenward. Farrow later learned that “Makua Kamiano” was Hawaiian for “Father Damien,” a real person. Farrow, a lover and writer of big stories, went to Belgium and Hawaii to learn the details of this man’s story, resulting in the 1937 biography.
As a sailor, Farrow enjoyed describing Damien’s trip to Hawaii. Damien de Veuster left Belgium in 1863 at the age of 23 on board a sailing ship in the company of a number of passengers, including nine other men from his religious order. They were Catholic priests; as a seminarian, he was not yet ordained. It was his first time on an oceangoing ship and what an experience! In our day, we would undoubtedly find a trip of five months, on a sailing ship, going round the fierce Cape Horn a test of human endurance. But in those days it was simply not out of the ordinary for anyone going halfway around the world.
Two months after his arrival, he was ordained and, because of the need, without any apprenticeship, made a pastor in Puno. During his tenure he built two churches. Now, there are many Catholic bishops and priests who served in the U.S. in the period 1850 to 1950 who acquired the reputation of builder — of churches, hospitals, schools, orphanages, convents. The difference is that Damien built these two churches with his own hands.
When a pastor of another parish, a much larger one geographically, became ill, Damien volunteered to switch parishes with him. That brought Damien to Kohala. It took him six weeks to visit most parts of the parish. There was a remote village, however. To this village, Damien traveled with two parishioners by canoe but it capsized in shark-infested waters. He decided to make a second attempt. By himself he rode a horse as far as it could go, then walked, then swam, and then climbed a mountain on his hands and knees. At its summit there was no village in sight. So he climbed down a steep ravine, then up a second mountain, then down again, then up a third mountain — through rain, through mud sometimes waist-deep, losing his boots, losing three fingernails, scratched by vines and branches. This third mountain he descended at night — his fourth night out. Exhausted, dehydrated, losing blood and unconscious, he collapsed.
Let’s stop the cameras at this point, as movie director Farrow might have barked. Three images come to my mind. The first is that of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer. After 16 days in an open boat on the high seas, including one day experiencing hurricane-force winds that kept it from landing, he and a small crew landed on May 9, 1916, on South Georgia Island, but on the wrong side of the island. He, and two other men, attempted to cross to the other side. For 36 consecutive hours, they hiked on snow and ice over unmapped terrain. In the darkness they slid, purposefully, down a mountain. They managed to walk into the whaling station.
The second image is that provided by former President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
But Damien was neither an explorer like Shackleton nor a politician in the arena like Roosevelt. Since he was a minister of the Christian Gospel, the third image is more apropos. This third image is a medieval bas-relief by Donatello on the north pulpit of St. Lawrence Church, Florence, depicting Jesus Christ Who, according to Christian belief “descended into Hell” (or limbo) to open the doors to Heaven for the Just who had preceded Him in death. English Christians call this “the Harrowing of Hell.” The word “harrow” is derived from the Old English “hergian” meaning “to make war, lay waste, ravage, plunder,” and is the word used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for what the Vikings did to England. This bas-relief depicts Jesus upending Hell to accomplish His mission. He is sweating and exhausted beyond all telling from His labors.
And now, with cameras rolling again, we see some villagers in the morning finding a man’s body. They see that he’s a white man and discover that he is unconscious, not dead. Imagine their surprise — and their joy — when they revive him and he tells them that he is a Catholic priest.
Farrow reports two additional incidents of great physical courage during Damien’s time at Kohala. On one occasion he was on horseback along the shore and saw in the distance what appeared to be a ship’s lifeboat and an unmoving body. Ignoring sharks, he swam out and found eight sailors who had been adrift for eight days after a fire at sea. He brought them to shore and nursed them back to health.
On another occasion a woman came to his door late at night. The woman knew him because Damien had given her once ill daughter some medicine. She whispered some words to him and then fled. She had told him pagan incantation rites against his life were being conducted that night in a burial cave. He walked through the darkness for an hour, found the cave, and surveyed the scene. There were 30 men. A voodoo priest had a doll made to look like him. Damien ran in, tore the doll to shreds, and stomped on its remains. He reproached the men and told them it was not a place for honest men and that they should return to their wives and children. Then he walked between them and left. No one touched him.
In 1873, Damien’s bishop invited him, and many of the priests on the Islands, to Maui for the dedication of a new church. After the ceremony, the bishop addressed his priests about the new rules by the Board of Health concerning the leper colony that had been established on Molokai in 1866. Because the disease was contagious and incurable, there could no longer be visits to the colony. He wanted to provide pastoral care to those with leprosy but he would not assign anyone to the colony. Instead, he asked for a volunteer who in effect would be taking a vow of stability like a monk — and who would be at high risk of acquiring the disease. Four stepped forward. Damien, now age 33, successfully persuaded the bishop to let him go to Molokai.
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H/T to National Review Online