Saint Damien is Alive: Celebrate!


Damien's Spirit is Alive

Damien's Spirit is Alive

Nearly thirty years ago Robin Pendergrast, current owner of RFP Photography Inc. (Crystal Lake, Ill.) ventured into the rare and unchartered world of a modern day Leper colony. He crossed beyond the stigma and barriers of Leprosy and built a lasting bridge leading to ongoing contacts with the resident-patients located in remote Kalaupapa, Hawaii. Pendergast reached out and touched his friends and they embraced him to the extent that deep personal relationships grew. In particular, Pendergrast befriended Richard Marks, Alice Kumaka, Sister Richard Marie, and Ruth Friedman. As friendships grew, Pendergrast discovered an uncommon, hidden power tucked away in Molokai. Walking the journey over the years, he experienced the joy, pain and hardship stories that were a part of life in this extraordinary community. His kinship with these people illuminated the presence of a Spirit of Father Damien that is all about offering one another unconditional love and acceptance. Pendergrast discovered the universal truth that there is great life-fulfilling power in choosing to “get involved.”

 Pendergast now wants people of all ages to experience important lessons similar to the ones he has learned. He desires for every person to find individual ways to move beyond existing marginalizing stigmas that keep people apart. Pendergrast has assembled a team initiating a photojournalism and curriculum project that seeks to unravel and share the hidden mysteries and the amazing, sordid history and stories of over 8,000 persons with Leprosy who were harshly exiled and left to live and painfully die in cruel isolation.  The eye of the camera wants to reveal what really happened in Molokai. What catalytic actions by a few managed to reverse vile rejection and hatred of Lepers toward eventually forming a solid healing community? Who and what created the avalanche impact that morphed the paradise-gone-wrong-situation into a now classic case study which demonstrates how unconditional love in action can impact and transform even the most terrible disease and social catastrophe?. Can the Spirit of Saint Damien and the people of Molokai be a catalyst of goodness in the world today?

 This is the emerging story of how photographer/videographer, Robin Pendergrast came to know Kalaupapa and its people. His is an amazing tale of serendipity, tenacity and caring. Through a series of more than 15 visits stretching over 30 years, Pendergrast compiled a body of photographic work with more than 2,000 images that honor Kalaupapa’s thousands of residents, all living with leprosy. The photographic works juxtapose the beauty of the lush, secluded peninsula with the stark pain and separation of its past and present inhabitants.

All across the globe the fascinating story of Father Damien and the exiled Lepers of Molokai is already very well known. It has been over a hundred and fifty years since Damien’s heroics came to the rescue for those banished because of their incurable disease forced them to die alone on the remote isolated villages of Molokai. However, renewed interest in this miracle-making story offers fresh opportunity to increase awareness and invite selfless, giving lifestyle.

Just exactly how Damien and the partnering leaders of Molokai transformed a horrific circumstance of fear, epidemic and  chaos, into a grand miracle story of caring and love is a fascinating and captivating saga. The epic drama offers many important contemporary lessons worth learning for the ages. Well- known literary figures like Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Mark Twain and a number of others have already immortalized Damien’s legacy. They leave behind a great body of literature chronicling the virtues of martyred self sacrifice. The canonization of Father Damien by the Roman Catholic Church on October 11, 2009 shines new light on an important story inspiring new hope for addressing suffering in the world.

 In Chicago, the Spirit of Damien is coming alive and catching fire once again awakening humanitarian action. Calling themselves “The Damien Project Team,” four individuals have grasped the powerful and compelling message and spirit of Father Damien. The project will produce an innovative documentary film and create and disseminate a curriculum that be used by schools to enliven volunteerism. The film will tell the great story of how Father Damien and his astounding humanitarian efforts countered and dealt with the hysteria and fear associated with the leprosy epidemic.

The details of the current story of the Father Damien Project begin in 1981.  Robin Pendergrast was a public relations executive and a volunteer firefighter/paramedic with the Northfield, Ill., Fire and Rescue. One day, he read an article in the Los Angeles Times that told of the Kalaupapa volunteer firefighters’ broken down fire engine. The island residents couldn’t get the old fire truck started, so they often had to push-start it with the colony’s garbage truck. They were unable to purchase a new truck; and because of the constant, strong trade winds, residents were highly vulnerable to fire. Pendergrast learned about the hardships of the modern-day Kalaupapa Settlement residents — who now reside in the area because they choose to, not because they are forced — through one of life’s odd coincidences. Many volunteers helped him restore the used fire truck to working order. Once the truck was operational, Pendergrast helped to procure transportation for it from Chicago to San Francisco via cargo plane courtesy of Flying Tiger Airlines.

The truck was then freighted to Honolulu and then barged to Molokai. On the morning of July 10, 1981, Pendergrast and others delivered the “new” fire truck to Kalaupapa. Living in the Spirit of Damien, a small but significant accomplishment continued the work of Father Damien caring for those isolated and cast aside. Pendergrast recalls, “The morning we delivered the fire truck was almost more than I could bear. I found that the event nearly broke my heart. I was happy for the accomplishment but so sad for the ongoing struggle of the people of Molokai. I sensed the pain that so few know about or care for people on the fringe.” Pendergast drove this fire truck off of the barge with great fanfare; and the people were stunned and amazed that this stranger from Chicago would do all of this for them. They felt, on some level, that something magnificent had happened. After the fire truck was delivered and the volunteers were trained to use it, Pendergrast continued to visit Kalaupapa residents and found other means by which to help them live more comfortably.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Pendergrast was able to bring Kalaupapa residents smoke detectors, CB radios, videotapes, VCRs and food. Many of these items were donated by corporations or bought through private donations. In addition, he established the Kalaupapa Fund, which was partially supported by the proceeds of a play, entitled “Damien, the Leper Priest of Molokai.” This one- man play, a soliloquy by Father Damien about his life and times, was produced and performed in several locations. Pendergrast is involved in producing the play and incorporating the photographic images within the story sequence. Through his work, Pendergrast asserts his belief that the inhumanities of yesterday’s leper colony mirrors, in principle and practice, the stigmatization and victimization of today’s AIDS patients.

Pendergrast will not admit that his small actions quantify his experiences at Kalaupapa with the many newspaper article clippings, stacks of letters from federal and state senators and representatives, a story on NBC’s Nightly News, and segment on the 1987 television show “Heroes: Made in the USA.” Pendergast says, “I will not be satisfied until I do my part to get people to get it. I desire for people all across the globe in this great world of ours to get in touch with the power of “The Spirit of Damien.” I believe that each of us has the ability to repair the world and make a difference…right now. It is not somebody else’s job.

“It is, no big deal, we must get off our comfortable spot and get busy. Most importantly we must design and teach a curriculum that helps young people seize the opportunities they have for changing themselves and the world and making needed improvements. Isn’t that why we are here in life in the first place?” Pendergrast continues. Perhaps, we must all learn lessons from Damien, lessons we learn in school and make selfless service our “lifestyle,” simply because it is the right thing to do.

What would the world be like today if hundreds or thousands of individuals were drawn to be aware of the epic story of the people and leader, Father Damien of Molokai, and like him, became empowered to seize personal opportunities in their own back yard attempting to make a lasting difference in the life of others? What kinds of catalysts would it take to be inspired by the historical biographical life of a saint and capitalize on those heroic tales of accomplishment to find a way to mobilize one’s own imagination and take personal steps to invest in selfless service?  What can ordinary citizens do today to overcome evil, disease and bring forth goodness and love? Who, like the iconic Father Damien might be ready to hear the inner call and be ready to step up and reach beyond the obstacles and barriers to touch those who need a bridge over life’s troubled waters?  

Today, who will care for those starving? Who attends to those dealing with HIV and other circumstances that have caused them to be cast aside, called, unclean, untouchable and more? Father Damien’s remarkable life and story shines exemplary light on what one extraordinary person can do. However, going beyond a history lesson about a special saint and his legacy today invites each person to examine what he or she might do to make a positive difference. Father Damien alone did not conquer the catastrophic conditions that affected over 8,000 banished persons with Hansen’s disease (Leperosy). Father Damien led by example. He formed a community among those who sought relief from their physical and spiritual pain. Damien rolled up his sleeves and met the problem he saw and set about to get beyond the fear of disease and death. Damien openly confronted the much stigmatized ancient disease most call a fate worse than death. Damien’s one-person-at-a-time strategy worked. He gained solid ground as his reputation and mission caught on.

Looking back, Damien’s determined, persistent and sometimes irritating calls for help did not go unheard. Damien overcame his own depression, overwork, frustration, toil, exhaustion, and sense of futility. Somehow he stood tall and awakened each day, with documented attributions pointing to the power of his faith and conviction. From the time Damien left his home, seeing his family for the final time at age 23 — he accepted a religious calling deep within his soul to offer the gift of God’s abundant comforting grace to every person, Catholic, or agnostic. Damien’s biographies reveal that his mother was a great teacher having the wisdom to teach Damien and all her children about the lives of the Saints. Reading their stories Damien obviously internalized her lessons and put them into practice.

In the remote villages of Kalaupapa and Kalawao, Damien formed a magnificent caring community. Damien somehow transformed anarchy and chaos and so that each of the inhabitants lived with a revived hope. Damien was somehow able to bring to life a spirit of caring, an environment of song, and a place of peace, coexisting with the reality and agony of disease, loneliness and often painful death. After Damien’s death in 1888, some willing souls carried on the traditions he began in Molokai. They bonded together living and sharing in Damien’s Spirit. The legacy of Father Damien, the Leper Priest of Molokai, stands as a great illustrative example of what just one person can accomplish making a difference. Now the proud Church honors and calls him a “Saint.” The Roman Catholic Church and the world acknowledge the many miracles attributed to this rare individual. Tourists flock to the isolated land of Damien to get in touch with the spirit residing there noted with over 8,000 marked and unmarked graves of those sadly lost to leprosy.

Damien’s legacy is an ongoing lesson of tragedy turned to triumph. Religious educators  and civic- minded individuals must analyze what happened in Molokai and offer students an opportunity to see the power of the sleeping giant lying within every person:  the ability to respond to a call coming from without and within to repair the world, with small or large actions, never giving in to malaise, apathy, self absorption, or personal greed. The Damien Documentary Project Team accepts the important challenge of helping to reawaken the Spirit of Damien. The team envisions an awakening of a “sleeping giant” to give energy to birth a new flurry of volunteerism, vocation and caring about others.

Pendergast and the Damien Project Team plan to have the documentary and accompanying curriculum design ready to release in time for the Catholic Church canonization ceremonies in the Vatican by Pope Benedict VI. The hope is that a viable curriculum can be used by students and teachers to raise awareness to the opportunities that exist when people of all ages can live like Damien. The documentary seeks to be a fitting tribute to Father Damien, while casting light on lesser known key leadership figures: Mother Marianne Cope and Brother Joseph Dutton.

In his book, Saints: A Closer Look, Thomas Dubay, S.M. attempts to summarize and describe the constitution of saints. Saints, he says, “are men and women on fire, totally self-giving even to enemies, alive and vivacious, thoroughly honest and authentic, profoundly happy even in suffering, heroic in patience, humility, chastity and love. They surpass our human capabilities, which are why they are miracles of goodness and moral miracles.” Following the great acts of love demonstrated by saints each person is called to the stage platform of life called to be fires of love and beauty alive in an often deeply troubled and suffering world. Each person is called to live as Mother Teresa of Calcutta challenges, “Not to do Great things, but to freely give of themselves humbly doing small  things with great love. When asked if she could use some help by volunteers coming to aid her, Mother Teresa said, “Don’t come to Calcutta, find your own Calcutta and make your own kind of difference there.”


See the “trailer”:


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