Father Damien

Father Damien was born Jozef De Veuster in Belgium on January 3, 1840, the last of seven children.  Damien was supposed to inherit the family business and, in preparation, went to study business administration and to learn French.  While at school, he attended a Lenten Parish Mission and was inspired with a vocation.  It seems that from a young age, Damien was always “all or nothing.”  Once  he had decided on a vocation he wanted to join the Trappists since this was the strictest form of religious life.  However, when visiting his brother at the Sacred Hearts Seminary in Louvain, he was persuaded to join the Sacred Hearts.  Since he hadn’t studied Latin, he was first accepted  as a lay-brother.  Throughout this earliest period of seminary formation, Damien demonstrated an attraction to austerity that would persist throughout his life.  Despite a robust constitution, he ate little and, to discipline himself, he slept on the floor.  His brother tutored him in Latin and Damien was then accepted as a priesthood candidate.

While Damien was in seminary, his brother was ordained a priest.  Then his brother was assigned to the Sacred Hearts mission in Hawaii.  As he prepared to leave, a typhus epidemic hit Louvain.  His brother caught the disease while ministering to the sick.  Since typhus required a long recuperation, he wasn’t able to sail to Hawaii.  This left one berth available for a missionary on the ship.  Damien, not yet a deacon, wrote to the Superior General asking for permission to take his brother’s place.  The General gave his permission and Damien left for Hawaii

Upon arrival in Honolulu, Damien was sent to the windward side of Oahu to complete his studies.  In short order, he was ordained a deacon and then, on May 21, 1864 he was ordained a priest in Queen of Peace Cathedral, Honolulu.  He was only 24 years old.  The Vicar Apostolic, Bishop Maigret, sent him to assist the missionaries on the Big Island.  Damien served there for 9 years.

Shortly before Damien’s arrival in Hawaii, leprosy began to spread among the native Hawaiians.  Most probably, leprosy reached the islands from China by way of the whaling and other commercial vessels transiting the Pacific Ocean.  Hawaiians, having been isolated for hundreds of years, had no natural immunological defense against the disease.  Once established, it spread rapidly and infected all the islands.  This created a crisis for the Hawaiian Government and the King was persuaded to establish an isolation colony to stop the spread of leprosy.  The site chosen for this colony is a natural prison on Molokai.  A 27 square mile, low lying section of the island was walled-off by 2000 foot-high cliffs.  Throughout the islands, government agents identified people showing signs of the disease and shipped them to a detention center in Honolulu.  At the center, Western doctors confirmed the diagnoses.  Lepers were then transshipped to Molokai.

The leper colony in Kalaupapa eventually included many Catholics who were in need of a priest.  Bishop Maigret was loathe to ask any one priest to go and serve them because of the danger of infection and of being quarantined.   At a meeting of Sacred Hearts missionaries, he explained the plight of the Catholics on Molokai.  Every Sacred Hearts missionary volunteered to go.  After more conversation, it was agreed that four priests would rotate through the colony in three month increments.  Damien was the first to go.

During Damien’s 16 years at Kalaupapa, many different factors contributed to his becoming a Martyr of Charity and Apostle to the Lepers.  For most of his time on Molokai, Damien, was the only resident clergyman.  Over 16 years, the government became more and more restrictive in terms of who could live in the colony.  At first, spouses and servants were able to accompany those who had the disease.  Government officials were able to transit freely between the colony and the outside.  Over time, the decision was made that no resident could ever leave the leprosarium.  This applied to Damien who had been able to travel to Honolulu to conduct business related to the settlement.

The Hawaiian kingdom was not rich and the leper settlement quickly strained its financial resources.  When the colony was established, only one dollar ($1) per leper per year had been allotted to provide housing, food, clothing and medical care.  When Damien arrived, many sick people lacked even the basic necessities.  He became the advocate for the settlement to the government, built houses for every resident, provided conventional medical care and experimented with new medications, planted orchards and imported cattle, built an aqueduct to bring fresh water into the settlement, expanded the pre-existing St. Philomena’s church, and established two orphanages (one each for boys and girls).  The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts in Honolulu promoted charitable support for the settlement and became the depot for donated goods and services.  As the settlement gained notoriety worldwide, donations poured in from all over the world.  This was a great relief to the government which tried to provide for the lepers as best they could.

Before Damien left Belgium for the missions, he visited a shrine to the Blessed Mother.  He asked her for 12 years of missionary service.  It is interesting to note that it was in his 12th year in the leper colony that he was diagnosed with the most virulent form of leprosy.  He lived and worked for 4 more years before succumbing to the disease on April 15, 1889.  He was 49 years old.  On Pentecost Sunday, 1995,Pope John Paul II declared Father Damien among the “Blessed” and gave him the title “Servant of Humanity.”  Father Damien’s Feast Day is May 10, the day he arrived to serve the Leprosarium in 1873.

With special thanks to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary

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