Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives, has been criticised after she singled out the Catholic saint and priest to the lepers known as Father Damien as a symbol of ‘patriarchy and white supremacist culture’.
“Even when we select figures to tell the stories of colonized places, it is the colonizers and settlers whose stories are told — and virtually no one else,” she wrote, beside a photo of the statue of the Belgian priest.
“This is what patriarchy and white supremacy culture looks like! It’s not radical or crazy to understand the influence white supremacist culture has historically had in our overall culture and how it impacts the present day.”
Ocasio-Cortez, also known as AOC, was referring to the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol building in Washington, which contains two statues sent by each of the 50 states to represent them and their history. Father Damien is one of the two statues representing Hawaii, together with former king Kamehameha I.
Father Damien was born Jozef De Veuster in 1840 in Tremelo in the province of Flemish Brabant, just 18km from Mechelen, seat of the Belgian church.
In 1873 he travelled to Hawaii to work with the people of a leper colony. American missionaries had already started proselytising in Hawaii. The Hawaii independent kingdom was overtrown by white American businessmen in 1893 and annexed to the US. In those days, the highly infectious leprosy was incurable, and sufferers were ostracised from society while they waited for the disease to kill them.
Damien joined the colony, ministered to them, shared food with them and eventually in 1884 contracted the disease himself. He died five years later.
Since then, he has been given the Catholic title of ‘martyr of charity’. He was named as Venerable by Pope Paul VI in 1977, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995 and canonised by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. At the ceremony to mark his canonisation, King Albert II of Belgium was present with Queen Paola.
Before that, in 2005, the Flemish public broadcaster televised a programme putting the case for people nominated as the greatest Belgian of all time, to be voted on by the public. The TV audience voted Damien in first place, ahead of cycling legend Eddy Merckx (3), Jacques Brel (7) and Rubens (9). In a similar poll organised by the French-speaking RTBF, Damien came in third place, after Brel and King Baudouin.
The statue of Damien is a replica of the one erected in his home town, and was sent to Washington by the state of Hawaii. The saint is also commemorated by Damien Vandaag, an association based in Leuven to curate his life and work.
“Ocasio-Cortez has a point that there are many white men among those statues in Washington,” admitted coordinator Ruben Boon. “And Damien was undeniably a white man,” he said. But the choice of Damien as an example of white male supremacy weakened her own argument.
“Damien was not a white ruler. He spoke the language of the Hawaiians. He deliberately chose their side against the white rule. He eventually gave his life for them. In that sense - even for the Hawaiians themselves - he is much more Hawaiian than Belgian, white or whatever.”
AOC has not responded personally, but her office issued a statement:
“Fr. Damien conducted acts of great good, and his is a story worth telling. 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 over other Hawaiian natives who conducted great acts of good, and why so few women and people of color are represented in Capitol statues at all.”
The Brussels Times