‘A clubbed skull or a good shipwreck, there is the death for a missionary… but to die a leper should be more precious still…’ : heroic missionary deaths of the 20th century at the Pacific Leprosy Asylum, Makogai Island, Fiji.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameBachelor of Arts (Hons)
Through Bishop Julien Vidal of Suva, Fiji, the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary (SMSM) provided nursing services to leprosy sufferers in the Makogai Island leprosarium, Fiji from its inception in 1911. In a period when the cause of leprosy was known but an effective remedy was not available, Pacific leprosy patients who suffered stigmatisation and rejection by their communities, were forcibly segregated through formal legislation to remote island leprosaria. Religious and humanitarian organisations aligned leprosy control measures with their goals to evangelise and fundraise amongst the faithful. The Catholic Church became known for the care of leprosy patients with staff recognised for devoting their lives to a self-sacrificing religious martyrdom. Early histories presented a sanitised view of the arduous work involved in running a ‘total’ institution. Mythologised tales of lived events on Makogai Island were couched in religious terminology. The process of mythmaking by missionary organisations has received some attention, notably by Young and Luder, but has not focussed on missions to leprosy sufferers. Young considered the necessary conditions for missionary legends to develop while Luder analysed the mythmaking of Polynesian peoples and use of sacred imagery to cloak deeper knowledge reserved for elites. Examination of the records of Bishop Vidal exposes the layer of insider knowledge that was kept within official circles, including information on the high rates of illness amongst the nuns, whose hygiene regimes required the use of toxic chemicals. Very few missionaries died from leprosy, whereas drowning was a common fate. Two specific deaths on Makogai Island, the death of a priest in a shipwreck and a nursing sister from leprosy, were progressively mythologised. The violent death of a European priest was more likely to be mythologised than that of a ‘native’ nun who contracted leprosy. The rousing phrases of Bishop Vidal are more aspirational than actuality.