Saint Damien of Molokai
By Paul & Cindy Mello
Many of us never stop to consider how ordinary tasks can become extraordinary when these tasks are done out of love for God. This very concept is brought to focus in the life of Saint Damien of Molokai. He performed the daily routines of many priests. In addition, he built churches, homes, shelters and even beds. He dressed wounds and ulcers, planted orchards, made coffins, and dug graves. But most importantly, he did all of these things with the love of Christ, knowing also that he was making himself vulnerable to the same very deadly disease that surrounded him.
He was born Josef de Veuster on January 3, 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium. The last of seven children born to a corn merchant named Joannes Franciscus de Veuster and his wife Anne Catherine Wouters, Josef was to inherit the family farm. Two of his sisters, Eugenie and Pauline, would become nuns. His brother Auguste would join the priesthood and take the name Father Pamphile. Josef would also answer the Lord’s call and join the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Drawn toward missionary work, he would often pray to St. Francis Xavier and the Blessed Mother to be sent out to serve in this way for the Lord. Father Damien was ordained May 21, 1864 in Honolulu.
His first assignment would come in an usual way, perhaps in answer to his prayers. Damien’s brother Auguste would be assigned to Hawaii. As fate would have it, or perhaps the divine plan of our creator, Damien’s brother would become ill and was unable to go to Molokai.
After a severe outbreak of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) it was decided that four priests would alternate in caring for the spiritual needs of those on the Island of Molokai. The disease was considered very contagious and deadly. It would disfigure its victims in most grotesque ways. Because medical knowledge at that time was unequipped to handle this disease, the victims were banished to live together on an island. It was thought that if each priest only remained for a maximum of three months at a time, they could protect themselves from contracting the disease. At the young age of only 33 years, Damien volunteered to go. And so on May 10, 1873 he began his first and also his last ministry. He would soon request to be assigned there permanently and offer care for the 816 lepers exiled with him.
He would begin by renovating Saint Philomena Church. He would later establish two orphanages. He would be the main advocate for the leper colony.
What exactly did St. Damien accomplish by building churches, homes and the like? He brought order to chaos. He gave hope to those who would otherwise have none. He gave purpose to their lives. He made them feel human again. He gave them dignity. He made them into a community; people caring for each other. He showed that God loved them. This is the great lesson we can all learn from Saint Damien. Love one another as God loves us and asks us to love back. Share what we have with those who are in need. No task, no skill, no amount of love is too small or too insignificant to share with others. We should try to help others any way we can.
After twelve years of working among the lepers, Damien too contracted the disease in 1885. Despite the knowledge of his illness, he continued to build, nurse, and minister to the others. He managed to convince others to come and continue the work when he was no longer able. Mother — and soon to be saint — Marianne Cope of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse came to help at Kalaupapa.
On April 15, 1889 Father Damien succumbed to Hansen’s disease and was buried in Kalaupapa. In 1936 the Belgium government would move his body to Leuven, Belgium. However, after his June 4, 1995 beatification, his hands would be returned to Hawaii. He was canonized on October 11, 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Damien represents the State of Hawaii in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol. His feast day is celebrated on April 15th in Hawaii and May 10th universally.
As youngsters growing up and worshiping in a church associated with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, we had heard the stories of Father Damien. We marveled at the courage that it took to do what he did by leaving his homeland, going halfway around the world to a strange place with strange customs and taking care of those stricken with a deadly contagious illness. Even though Father Damien may never have actually visited our congregation in Fairhaven, in the eyes of impressionable children, he was a local hero, one from whom we can all learn the true meaning of giving.