Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., NY) has some thoughts about St. Damien of Molokai, the 19th-century Belgian missionary priest who ministered to a leper colony in the Aloha State.
In an Instagram story uploaded Thursday, the congresswoman, who once complained about not being able to afford an apartment after being elected to a position that pays her $174,000 a year and will provide her with free health-care and other benefits for the rest of her life, singled out a statue of Damien, who lived in vowed poverty and eventually died of leprosy himself, as a representative example of “what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks [sic] like.” She was not referring to the saint’s life or manner of conduct, but to the fact that he is memorialized inside the Capitol while Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarch of the kingdom of Hawaii, is not.
Ocasio-Cortez is probably not aware of the fact that the statue of the saint is a replica of one that stands outside the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu, that he spoke and preached in the Hawaiian language, that his feast day is a holiday in Hawaii, or that he is routinely named in lists of the most admired figures in modern Hawaiian history. After Damien was canonized in 2009, President Obama wrote the following words to Pope Benedict XVI:
Fr. Damien has also earned a special place in the hearts of Hawaiians. I recall many stories from my youth about his tireless work there to care for those suffering from leprosy who had been cast out. Following in the steps of Jesus’ ministry to the lepers, Fr. Damien challenged the stigmatizing effects of disease, giving voice to the voiceless and ultimately sacrificing his own life to bring dignity to so many. [Obama]
Nor is Damien’s fame limited to these shores or to the Catholic faithful. When a Scottish clergyman referred to Damien as “a coarse, dirty man” in a letter, his fellow Presbyterian Robert Louis Stevenson responded with a 6,000-word essay in praise of the saint. In his native country Damien has been named De Grootste Belg, “the greatest Belgian.” Gandhi once quipped that neither politics nor journalism had produced many “heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai.”
To be fair, Ocasio-Cortez is not actually calling St. Damien a white supremacist. I’m sure she would agree that lots of people can exemplify “patriarchy and white supremacist culture” by having statues of themselves erected for their heroic service to non-white communities. She just picked a bad example. Nobody’s perfect. Matthew Walther