THE LIFE OF FATHER DAMIEN
Father Damien, the Belgian Catholic priest who lived in a leprosy colony on the island of Molokai in Hawaii between 1873 and 1889, is to be raised to sainthood in a ceremony in Rome on 11 October 2009.
Father Damien was born Joseph de Veuster into a large family in 1840. He was raised as a Christian and his father, a farmer-merchant, planned that Joseph would eventually take charge of the family business.
However, when he was 18, Joseph felt called by God to follow his brother into the priesthood and was ordained aged 23. It was then that he took the name of Damien, member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a missionary religious institute. He won recognition for his ministry to people with leprosy (also known as Hansen's disease), who had been placed under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Moloka’i in the Kingdom of Hawai’i.
Damien went to say goodbye to his brother Pamphile, who was about to sail to Honolulu, Hawaii as a missionary, but found that he was too sick to travel the long journey. Damien took Pamphile's place and so began his life's work.
On March 19, 1864, Damien landed at Honolulu Harbor on Oahu as a missionary. There, Damien was ordained into the priesthood on May 21, 1864, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace a church that had been founded by his religious institute. In 1865, he was assigned to the Catholic Mission in North Kohala on the Island of Hawaii.
While Father Damien was serving in several parishes on Oahu, the Kingdom of Hawaii was facing a public health crisis. Some Native Hawaiians became infected by several diseases brought to the Hawaiian Islands by foreign traders and sailors. Thousands of Hawaiians died of influenza, syphilis and other ailments that had never been seen there before. One of these other diseases was leprosy (Hansen's disease).
At that time, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious, but later it was found that 95 percent of human beings are immune to it. Leprosy was also thought to be incurable. Out of fear of its spread in 1865, the Hawaiian Legislature passed and King Kamehameha V approved the "Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy".
This law quarantined the lepers of Hawaii and caused them to be moved to settlement colonies of Kalaupapa and Kalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokai, Kalawao County, where the villages are located is divided from the rest of Molokai by a steep mountain ridge, and even now the only land access to it is by a mule trail. About 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula from 1866 through 1969.
In the beginning, the Royal Board of Health provided the quarantined people with food and other supplies, but it did not have the resources to offer proper health care for them. According to documents of that time, the Kingdom of Hawaii did not plan the settlements to be penal colonies, but the kingdom did not provide enough resources to support them. The kingdom planned for the inhabitants to grow their own crops, but because of the local environment and the effects of leprosy, this was impractical.
While Bishop Louis Desire Maigret believed that the lepers at least needed a Catholic priest to assist them, he realized that this assignment could become a death sentence. Hence he did not want to send any one person "in the name of obedience". After much prayer, four priests volunteered to go. The bishop's plan was for the volunteers to take turns assisting the inhabitants.
Father Damien was the first priest to volunteer, and on May 10, 1873, he arrived at the secluded settlement at Kalaupapa, where Bishop Maigret presented him to the 816 lepers living there. Damien's first course of action was to build a church and establish the Parish of Saint Philomena. His role was not limited to being a religious priest. He dressed ulcers, built homes and furniture, made coffins, and dug graves. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao he wrote his brother, Pamphile, in Europe:
...I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.
Father Damien's arrival is seen by some as a turning point for the community. Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks became painted houses, working farms were organized, and schools were established. At his own request, and of the lepers, Father Damien remained on Molokai.
In December 1884 while preparing to bathe, Damien inadvertently put his foot into scalding water, causing his skin to blister. He felt nothing. Damien had contracted leprosy. Despite this discovery, residents say that Damien worked vigorously to build as many homes as he could and planned for the continuation of the programs he created after he was gone.
Masanao Goto, a Japanese leprologist, came to Honolulu in 1885 and treated Father Damien. It was his theory that leprosy was caused by a diminution of the blood, and his treatment consisted of nourishing food, moderate exercise, frequent friction to the benumbed parts, special ointments and medical baths. The treatments did, indeed, relieve some of the symptoms and were very popular with the Hawaiian patients. Father Damien had faith in the treatments and stated that he wished to be treated by no one but Dr. Masanao Goto. Dr. Goto was one of his best friends and Damien's last trip to Honolulu on July 10, 1886, was made to receive treatment from him.
In his last years Damien engaged in a flurry of activity. While continuing his charitable ministrations, he hastened to complete his many building projects, enlarge his orphanages, and organize his work. Help came from four strangers who came to Kalaupapa to help the ailing missionary: a priest, a soldier, a male nurse, and a nun. She was Mother Marianne Cope.
Few people stayed on the mountainous island of Molokai. It was not easy to make a living there. Father Damien filled every day of his life with work. For the sakes of those who had leprosy, he was their doctor, nurse, builder, carpenter, engineer as well as priest and friend. His first day on the island was spent working for 12 hours with one short break and some fruit to eat. For the first few weeks his sleeping place was his mat under a tree.
Damien knew death was near. He was bedridden on March 23, 1889, and on March 30 he made a general confession and renewed his vows. On April 1, he received Holy Viaticum and on April 2, Extreme Unction.
Father Damien died of leprosy at 8:00 am on April 15, 1889, aged 49. The next day, after Mass by Father Moellers at St. Philomena's, the whole settlement followed the funeral cortège to the cemetery where Damien was laid to rest under the same Pandanus tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokaʻi.
In January 1936, at the request of the Belgian government, Damien's body was returned to his native land. It was brought back aboard the Belgian sailing ship Mercator and now rests in Leuven, an historic university city close to the village where Damien was born. After his beatification in June 1995, the remains of his right hand were returned to Hawaiʻi, and re-interred in his original grave on Molokaʻi.
After sixteen years caring for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of those in the leper colony, he eventually contracted and died of the disease, and is considered a "martyr of charity". He was the tenth person recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church to have lived, worked, and/or died in what is now the United States.
King David Kalakaua bestowed on Damien the honor Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua. When Princess Lydia Lili’uokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she was reported as having been too distraught and heartbroken to read her speech. The princess shared her experience with the world and publicly acclaimed Damien's efforts. Consequently, Damien's name was spread across the United States and Europe. American Protestants raised large sums of money for the missionary. The Church of England sent food, medicine, clothing and supplies. It is believed that Damien never wore the medal given to him, although it was placed by his side at his funeral.
“Father Damien's canonization is a time to celebrate his life and to remember the powerful impact that one life, dedicated to a just cause, can have on people who are living with leprosy,' says Geoff Warne, General Director of The Leprosy Mission. 'But we mustn't forget that today, in the 21st century, leprosy-affected people still experience stigma and rejection; this is something that The Leprosy Mission is passionate about working to overcome.”
Thousands of people are diagnosed with leprosy every year; in fact someone is diagnosed with the disease every two minutes. But 130 years after Father Damien arrived in Molokai, people are still experiencing human rights abuses because they have leprosy. The Leprosy Mission is committed to bringing an end to this injustice and works tirelessly with leprosy-affected people while there is still much work to be done.
Mahatma Gandhi knew about the work of Father Damien and he mentioned him several times. Gandhiji took inspiration for all his social works and for the battles that he himself started to conquer the freedom for his country and for helping the mostly needed people as well.
Gandhi wrote himself:” In the world of politics and journalism there are several heroes, but few can be compared to Father Damien of Molokai. It’s really worthy to read the reasons of such heroism”.
Father Damien, seen here with the Kalawao Girls Choir during the 1870s.
Father Damien on his deathbed
Mother Marianne Cope standing beside Father Damien's funeral bier
The leprosy patients of Molokaʻi gathered around Father Damien's grave in mourning.