‘Molokai’ is an Inspirational Film for a Time of Pandemic

Fr. Damien’s Faith Shone Amid Great Crisis

(photo: Register Files)

I’m not sure what I was doing back in 1999, when the indie film Molokai was first released, but I don't remember hearing anything about it. Now, though, the inspiring story of Father Damien and the lepers is receiving the attention it deserves as a current feature on Amazon Prime.

In these days of COVID-19 and “sheltering in,” Molokai is an inspiring tale for more reasons than one: First, you can't help but realize that we don’t really have it all that bad, sitting here in our homes, trying to work or overindulging on the all-too-convenient potato chips and  chocolate chip cookies. But more importantly, Father Damien’s generosity is an inspiration to us when we are too wary, too unwilling to let outsiders into our world. He knew, when he volunteered for a difficult assignment on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, that contact with the residents of the leper colony could lead to his own death.

Filmed on location in Hawaii and starring Australian actor David Wenham, Molokai was introduced at both the Toronto Film Festival and the Montreal Film Festival in September 1999. It’s a faithful retelling of the story of young Father Damien De Veuster, a Catholic priest from Belgium. Father Damien was a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a missionary religious institute. When news reached his community of the need for a chaplain to minister to people suffering from leprosy in a government-mandated medical quarantine, Father Damien volunteered for the job. With only a small suitcase, Father Damien departed by sea for the other side of the world, knowing that he'd likely never see his homeland again.

Once he arrived at the leper settlement on the Kalaupapa Peninsula, Father Damien met the lepers — old men and young children, all with a disease for which there was no cure, and which would likely lead to their untimely death. Leprosy had already taken its toll on the island’s residents: Some bore unsightly scars and misshapen faces. Others had lost fingers or entire limbs. Father Damien immediately disobeyed the warning of his superior to avoid touching the patients, and instead warmly shook hands with an eager young altar boy and embraced an elderly man who lived alone beside the sea.

Father Damien brought the Catholic faith to the people he served — celebrating Mass for the Catholics, introducing others to the faith. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 11, 2009. Now Damien’s story, directed by Paul Cox and starring Wenham in the title role with supporting actors Sam Neill and Kris Kristofferson, may introduce the faith to viewers watching from the safety of their living room sofas.

And while you're taking advantage of Amazon Prime’s showcase of a true Catholic hero, you might also enjoy the short (8 1/2-minute) documentary Father Damien of Molokai, directed by Charles Annenberg Weingarten. It’s part of the Explore series.

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