A Belgian action group spoke out on Monday in defence of Father Damien, who was accused of being a symbol of patriarchy and white supremacy by American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Sunday.
Father Damien’s statue is one of two that represent the state of Hawaii in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, alongside former king Kamehameha I. Whether this honour is deserved has now become a point of discussion.
On Moloka’i, Father Damien cared for outcast Hawaiians affected by leprosy at the end of the 19th century, before succumbing to the disease himself in 1889.
Sonia Crabbé, chair of the Damien action group, told the VRT that she finds Ocasio-Cortez’s comments “incomprehensible”.
“How could he be torn down from a pedestal of compassion, care, subservience and altruism?”, Crabbé said. “The fact that she chose to take aim at him specifically is very disappointing to me.”
“This was not a matter of oppression, but of living with people who were totally excluded from society. You could compare it to the quarantine that is taking place right now. Only the people of Moloka’i knew they would never return. And yet, Damien chose to share the rest of his life, his joys and sorrows, with them.”
In Belgium, Father Damien is seen as the patron saint of lepers, and since 2005, of aids patients. He is celebrated yearly on 10 May, commemorating the day that Damien arrived on Hawaii.
In 2005, father Damien was voted as the greatest Belgian of all time, over painter Rubens (9) and singer Jacques Brel (7).
On Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez’s office issued a statement regarding the comments, affirming that “Fr. Damien conducted acts of great good, and his is a story worth telling”. At the same time, the statement finds it “is still worthy for us to examine from a US history perspective why a non-Hawaiian, non-American was chosen as the statue to represent Hawaii in the Capitol”, instead of Hawaiian natives.
The Brussels Times