Lost manuscript sheds light on Father Damien’s music


Leuven’s Damiaan Vandaag has turned to crowdfunding to restore the 19th-century choir book thought to have been written by the Flemish saint during his time in Hawaii

Hidden for 30 years

Cleaning up the basement can lead to unexpected surprises. The Leuven documentation centre Damiaan Vandaag (Damien Today) recently found a music manuscript that had been lying there unseen for 30 years.

The piece contains Latin and Hawaiian songs from the era of Father Damien, the 19th-century Flemish priest who worked with lepers in Hawaii and was canonised in 2009. Researchers are now wondering whether he wrote it himself.

But how could such an important piece have lain untouched for so long? “That’s a good question,” says Ruben Boon, project manager at Damiaan Vandaag. “The monks of the order of the Picpussen in Leuven collected a lot of objects during that time. Later, the collection in the Damien Museum in his home town, Tremelo, was reorganised, and some folkloric Hawaiian pieces were removed from the museum and stocked here, including a chest.”

That chest remained untouched in the basement for 30 years, until one day, Boon and his colleagues decided to see what was inside. “It was a very heavy chest; two men were needed to lift the lid. We found some braiding, and at first this piece appeared to be just a mat. But somehow it looked more authentic than the rest. We unfolded it, and it turned out to be a band of woven pandanus leaves with pages reinforced with kapa, both traditional Hawaiian materials.”

Falling into place

On the first pages, Boon and his colleagues found the Mass in Latin, and further inside were Hawaiian songs. “That gave us an indication that the book was a choir book, but that it was also used to teach people to sing,” Boon explains.

“An expert from Resonant, the Flemish Centre for Musical Heritage, told us that it was not text but the Hawaiian way of writing down notes.” The Hawaiian language, continues Boon, has no dental consonants – sounds that are produced by putting the tongue against the upper teeth – “so ‘do’ for them is unpronounceable. Therefore, the music notes have different names.”

We have done a survey of several museums, and no one has a piece like this

- Ruben Boon

Slowly, pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. They had a musical manuscript from the mission in Hawaii, which was dated to the second half of the 19th century using an old museum catalogue. Could it have been written by Father Damien? 

“We do not know,” is Boon’s short answer. “It is from the same period as his stay at the leper colony of Molokai, and from Father Damien’s letters we know that music played an important role in the life of the parishes. Damien formed a group of musicians, provided songbooks and made instruments himself. But we also know that he often lacked songbooks, just like other missionaries on the island. So maybe that’s why somebody made a songbook themselves.”

Unique piece

It is possible to use handwriting analysis to determine whether Damien or someone from his immediate surroundings is the author of the manuscript. But for now, the priority is to protect the fragile paper.

 “Whether or not Father Damien is the author, the piece gives a unique insight into the role of music in the mission in Hawaii,” says Boon. “It is also an important intercultural document. The songs and the melody are Western, the language and notation Hawaiian. We have done a survey of several museums, including in Hawaii, but no one has a piece like this.”

Restoring this document just to put it back in the archive would be a pity

- Ruben Boon

To restore the manuscript, money is needed. Damiaan Vandaag enlisted the help of Boekensteun, a new crowdfunding project that focuses on books, both new releases and heritage pieces. The appeal has already reached its target, but there is a bit extra: Flemish soprano Noémie Schellens and Leuven-based choir Camerata Aetas Nova have put their weight behind the project. Next May, when the manuscript will be restored, a performance is scheduled to bring the music back to life.

“Restoring this document just to put it back in the archive would be a pity,” says Boon. “It offers a new, unexpected angle on the well-known story of Father Damien.”

photo: Flemish soprano Noémie Schellens will sing pieces from the newly found songbook next spring

© Robbe Maes

Lost manuscript sheds light on the Hawaiian music of Flemish saint Father Damien

LinkedIn this