Saint Damien

The Leper Priest

In the mid 1800s, waves of foreigners introduced a series of diseases that ravaged the native people of Hawaii.1 Among the cruelest of these diseases was leprosy, now known as Hansen's disease, for which there was no known cure.2

As the severe deformities symptomatic of Hansen's disease spread, so did fear. It was decided that those afflicted should be forcibly outcast on a remote peninsula on the small Island of Molokai. This peninsula, now home to the settlement of Kalaupapa, is battered on three sides by a roaring Pacific ocean and cut off from the rest of the Island by one of the world's tallest and sheerest ocean cliffs.

The souls outcast here became prisoners in their own land, harshly kicked from boats, washing onto shore without adequate supplies, infrastructure, medicine, or tools. Families on surrounding Islands, powerless to help, mourned for the cruel fate of their loved ones.

Send me

Father Damien, born Joseph de Veuster on January 3rd of 1840 in Belgium, was one of eight siblings. When he was old enough, Joseph's father, a farmer, sent him to college to prepare him for a commercial profession. It was there that Joseph, through a society of missionary priests, decided to become a priest himself, taking the religious name Damien.

Several of Damien's siblings had also pursued religious callings, including his older brother Auguste. It was, in fact, Auguste who originally intended to give his life to the mission in Hawaii. Because of illness, Auguste was prevented from going. Having prayed daily to be used by God as a missionary, Damien seized the opportunity. He asked to and succeeded in taking his brother's place.

After the necessary preparation, Damien arrived to the Hawaiian Islands in March of 1864 and was subsequently ordained a Priest at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, which still stands in Honolulu today.

Some years after Damien's arrival to Hawaii, his bishop was looking for a few brave volunteers for a short-term trip to minister to those with Hansen's disease exiled on Molokai. Damien immediately volunteered. Knowing the risk of infection, he was warned by the bishop himself to proceed with caution.

You must avoid any form of contagion. If they pass around a pipe [a common cultural occurrence] you must refuse it. Above all, you must not join in meals and eat from the communal pot with your fingers, as others do. Even the saddle that a leper has sat upon must be taboo to you, and I forbid you to sleep in the hut of a leper.3

The dying shed

Kalaupapa greeted Damien with devastation. He walked among the living dead. Everywhere he looked was grotesque disfigurement, bleeding and oozing sores, rampant diseases of various kinds, and perhaps worst of all, hopelessness. Damien struggled to celebrate his first mass.

The building was full and it was boiling hot. Damien was confronted with all the physical unpleasantness of leprosy. There were too many people with suppurating sores, so that there was a stench of rotting flesh. Moreover, one of the symptoms of leprosy is that the sufferer salivates excessively. The people were constantly coughing, clearing their throats and spitting on the ground. Damien had to turn away in order not to be sick. He went to the open window, but the building was surrounded by ill people who had not been able to get into the church.3

Damien was most impacted by his visit to the "dying shed," where those swiftly approaching death were taken. When he entered, he met the eyes of a desperate young man. His face was swollen. His body lay frail and trembling on a dirty sheet. Damien could see maggots crawling through his open sores. Although the Bishop had forbidden him to touch the patients, Damien began to stroke the boy's neck, where the skin was still untainted. He spoke to him of Heaven and God's welcome there, and anointed him. As Damien touched him and prayed, a spasm went through the young man's body and he died in the loving presence of the young priest.4

By the end of his three months at Kalaupapa, Damien came to the conviction that God was calling him to dedicate his life to the suffering people there. He wrote to his superiors, "I wish to sacrifice myself for the poor lepers. The harvest here seems ripe."5

Damien's wish would become reality. This was to be his ministry until the end. Indeed, the ministry would eventually cost him his life.

We lepers...

"Missionary work requires, first and foremost, being prepared for martyrdom…"6

When Damien returned to the colony, he began his first sermon with "We lepers..." though there was not yet any sign of infection in his body. Damien had recognized that if he really wanted to win the hearts of his new flock, he had to be willing to touch them, to eat with them, to smoke the communal pipe as one of them. All the while he knew that infection was a death sentence. Father Damien wouldn't die for another fifteen long years, but the day he identified himself as one of the afflicted was the day he truly gave his life away.

Damien had four distinct objectives in his ministry.

He sought to meet their spiritual needs. While the physical needs of the people were daunting, the spiritual needs were equally pressing for Damien. In the face of death, some cast off moral restraint, turning to sex and drink. As he ministered, Damien faced covert but prevailing witchcraft among the exiles, a legacy of their former religion. The gospel offered hope when all other hope was lost.

He wanted to provide medical care. In addition to Hansen's disease, the patients suffered from all kinds of secondary infections: lice and tick infestations, scabies, lung infections, ulcerated sores, diarrhea, coughs, etc. He was instrumental in contributing to the alleviation of all these needs, often in the face of indifference, delays, and even open opposition from the outside. He cleaned the ulcers, put ointment on them, and bandaged his patients up. He did his own research, using a control group treated with placebos to document the success or ineffectiveness of the new methods he read about.

He was to be a father to the fatherless. There were many orphans left to fend for themselves. In time he was caring for more than 100 orphan boys himself. In addition to spiritual teaching, he involved them in his building projects.

Damien was determined to raise the living conditions. Damien set about helping them erect their cottages. He worked to bring in an adequate water supply. He insisted on better food rations and adequate clothing. He dug their graves and made their coffins. He not only had to work as a priest, but as a doctor, architect, and builder as well. He built orphanages, homes, churches, and more. Damien also raised awareness among the public, he was a tireless advocate outside the colony for the exiles within.

Confessions of a saint

While he often wrote of the unique joy that comes with serving God and those who were most needy, Father Damien was no stranger to loneliness, depression, temptation, and more. In one journal entry, he confesses,

Angry on Sunday three times before mass. Impure thoughts, the furies. Listened to tittle-tattle and gossip and did the same myself... two or three times allowed someone to die without the sacraments, vanity, hatred, grumbling at others, inflexibility.7

As Damien poured out his life in selfless love in a way seemingly beyond the average person's ability, it's refreshing to read of his plain humanity.

Easter in heaven

"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."8

After twelve years among the exiles of Molokai, Damien began to notice symptoms in his foot. One day, while preparing a bath, he unknowingly placed his foot into scalding water. His skin blistered, but he felt nothing. For what would be the last three years of his life, Hansen's disease ravaged Damien's body. What started as pain in his foot turned to open sores on his left hand and disfigurement of his face. All the while, he continued his priestly work, pushing the limits his deteriorating body imposed. As his condition worsened, he resigned to death with a measure of peace. "I am happy that I can celebrate Easter in heaven," he wrote as the end drew near.

Father Damien died of Hansen's disease at 8:00 a.m. on April 15, 1889, at the age of 49. His body was buried in Molokai, but in 1936, at the request of the Belgian government, it was exhumed and returned to his homeland. Damien's story was powerfully shared with the world in the 1999 film Molokai: The Story of Father Damien.9His statue, along with the Hawaiian king, Kamehameha, has been placed in Statuary Hall in Washington DC.

Damien served the exiles on Molokai for over fifteen years before his death. It was long enough to see the establishment of a more modern hospital, the arrival of an order of nurses to care for the sick, someone to care for his orphans, and even a resident physician. Indeed, it was long enough to tenderly stroke the neck of a boy on his deathbed. It was long enough to teach the world how to love like Christ.


Sources

Eynikel, Hilde: Molokai. The Story of Father Damien. (Trans.) Lesley Gilbert. London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, (1999).

Father Damien (Joseph de Veuster). New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04615a.htm

Kalaupapa. http://visitmolokai.com/tour4.html

Footnotes

[1] From 1778 to 1853, according to the Bishop's Irish assistant, Arsene Walsh, 76 % of the native population had died from various diseases mostly brought by foreigners, including Hansen's disease (Eynikel, p. 41).

[2] Although the Norwegian physician, Gerhard Hansen, first observed the M. leprae bacteria in tissue specimens from leprosy patients in 1873, no effective, reliable vaccine to prevent Hansen's disease had been developed. However, since the late 1940's certain drugs can halt the progression of Hansen's disease and can rapidly make the patient noninfectious. In the Western Hemisphere (including Hawaii) Hansen's disease was unknown until the arrival of European explorers and settlers. (Thomas M. Shinnick. "Leprosy," The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago, 2002.) It wasn't until 1947 that the patients in Hawaii were treated with modern drugs, which stopped the spread of the epidemic, and not until 1969 that segregation regulations were lifted in Hawaii, which by then was an American state (Eynikel p. 323).

[3] Eynikel, p. 75

[4] Eynikel, p. 86

[5] Eynikel, p. 80

[6] Joseph Ratzinger. On the Way to Jesus Christ. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004, p. 70. (Ratzinger was elected Pope in 2005 and took the name Benedict XVI.)

[7] Eynikel, p. 196

[8] John 15:12,13 (New International Version).

[9] Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, (1999). Produced by Era Films, Brussels, directed by Paul Cox, with a screenplay by John Briley, and starring David Wenham (as Damien), Peter O'Toole, Tom Wilkinson, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Neill, and Derek Jacobi.

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