Robert Louis Stevenson, Father Damien, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson visited Molokai in 1889 shortly after Saint Father Damien’s death (April 1889). He spent eight days there assisting Sister Marianne Cope (also canonized) with the lepers (much to her chagrin, for the author himself then had TB and could have easily  contracted the disease in that weakened state). Not long afterwards (actually four years before his own death in 1894), Stevenson came to the defense of Father Damien in a scathing letter (well worth his literary skills and flair for righteous sarcasm), an Open Letter it turned out to be, to a Presbyterian Rev. Mr. Hyde of Honolulu.  Hyde had viciously calumniated Father Damien, soon after the saint’s death, in a letter to an inquiring fellow Presbyterian minister, a Rev. Gage, that was subsequently published that October, 1889, in an Australian newspaper, the Sydney Presbyterian. The reason that Gage had inquired of Hyde for information about Father Damien was that the whole world was then praising the deceased priest’s  charity and heroism. Stevenson (himself a Presbyterian) had read that letter while staying in Australia. That same paper refused to carry the famous writer’s rebuttal. That is why Stevenson published it as an Open Letter which, on account of his prestige, was read everywhere in the English speaking world. He affirmed that he had an obligation in justice to defend the good name of the priest of Molokai. We posted Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterful eulogy of the saint he had almost met in person on our website here.  After rereading Stevenson’s rebuttal I noticed the irony that our author had titled his famous 1886 horror novel, Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I am sure our readers all know the gist of it: the gentleman scientist, Dr. Jekyll, turns into the homicidal maniac, Mr. Hyde, after drinking some kind of potion. Well, as you will read in our author’s Open Letter, the Rev. Mr. Hyde had once (as a Dr. Jekyll) praised the work of Father Damien, then, after imbibing some kind of slanderous poison he turned into a calumniating maniac.

Remembering Kaluapapa: The life of the famous Belgian missionary Father Damien (1840-1889) – “apostle of the lepers” – has been revisited in the current motion picture, ‘Molokai’. Directed by Paul Cox, with David Wenham in the leading role and an all-star cast, the movie is a faithful representation of its subject.

Less known, however, is the fact that the famous Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, a Presbyterian, was a strenuous defender of Father Damien in the face of unjustified criticisms.

Father F. E. Burns, who provides the following account, is a retired priest of the Melbourne Archdiocese and a former Air Force chaplain. Read his account here.