St. Damien of Molokai, Model of Charity
May 10 is the feast day of St. Damien de Veuster, better known as St. Damien of Molokai, a Belgian priest of the the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who ministered to lepers on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i in 1873. He worked tirelessly for fifteen years to improve living conditions for victims of leprosy (Hansen’s disease), who were ordered to live under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Moloka’i.
Jozef Damien De Veuster, was born at Tremelo, Belgium, on January 3,1840. Jozef began his novitiate with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary at the beginning of 1859 and took the name Damien.
He would pray every day before a picture of St Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, to be sent on a mission. In 1863 his brother, who was to leave for a mission in the Hawaiian Islands, fell ill. Since preparations for the voyage had already been made, Damien obtained permission from the Superior General to take his brother’s place. He landed in Honolulu on March 19, 1864 and was ordained to the priesthood on May 21.
At that time, the Hawaiian Government decided on the harsh measure of quarantine aimed at preventing the spread of leprosy: the deportation to the neighboring Island of Molokai of all those infected by what was then thought to be an incurable disease. The entire mission was concerned about the abandoned lepers and Bishop Louis Maigret, a Picpus father, felt sure they needed priests. He did not want to send anyone “in the name of obedience” because he was aware such an assignment was a potential death sentence. Of the four Brothers who volunteered, Damien was the first to leave.
Father Damien arrived in Hawaii in 1873 and never left. Part of a team of four chaplains taking that assignment for three months each year, Father Damien soon volunteered to remain permanently, caring for the people’s physical, medical and spiritual needs. He helped to doctor their sores, say last rites and even dig their graves. In time, he became their most effective advocate to obtain promised government support. Up until then, the financially-strapped government provided almost no assistance.
Soon the settlement had new houses and a new church, school and orphanage. Morale improved considerably. In 1888, the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse led by Blessed Marianne Cope were given charge of the colony in Kalaupapa, taking care of the female patients with Hansen’s Disease. After his death, Blessed Marianne Cope was successor of the Boys Home in Kalawao, Molokai.
At his own request and that of the lepers, he remained on Molokai. Having contracted leprosy himself, he died on April 15, 1889, at the age of 49, after serving 16 years among the lepers. He was buried in the local cemetery under the same Pandanus tree where he had first slept upon his arrival in Molokai. His remains were exhumed in 1936 at the request of the Belgian Government and translated to a crypt of the Church of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts at Louvain. Damien is universally known for having freely shared the life of the lepers in quarantine on the Kalaupapa Peninsula of Molokai. His departure for the “cursed isle”, the announcement of his illness (leprosy) in 1884 and his subsequent death deeply impressed his contemporaries of all denominations.
Damien was above all a Catholic missionary. Fr Damien is known today as a hero of charity because he identified so closely with the victims of leprosy. Damien is the spiritual patron of lepers, outcasts, and those with HIV/AIDS, and of the State of Hawaii.
Pope John Paul II beatified Damien de Veuster in Brussels on June 4, 1995. On October 11, 2009, Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.
St. Damien Quote:
“The Blessed Sacrament is indeed the stimulus for us all, for me as it should be for you, to forsake all worldly ambitions. Without the constant presence of our Divine Master upon the altar in my poor chapels, I never could have persevered casting my lot with the lepers of Molokai; the foreseen consequence of which begins now to appear on my skin, and is felt throughout the body. Holy Communion being the daily bread of a priest, I feel myself happy, well pleased, and resigned in the rather exceptional circumstances in which it has pleased Divine Providence to put me.”