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Damien of Molokai: a real hero Print
Guest column
Thursday, Oct. 08, 2009 -- 12:00 AM

Editor's note: Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Blessed Damien of Molokai on October 11. This article from Hope News Service provides information on one of our newest saints.

Guest Column

Joseph de Veuster -- the future St. Damian of Molokai -- was born in Belgium on January 3, 1840, the seventh child of a devout Catholic family.

His family owned a farm, and since Joseph intended to take over the family business, his education was geared toward practical subjects.

Decided to become a priest

While he was at school, he attended a parish mission. Inspired by the message, Joseph decided he wanted to become a missionary priest.

Shortly after this experience, he visited his older brother, Pamphile, who was studying to be a priest for the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.  At age 19 Joseph was accepted as a lay brother.

His superiors didn't want to ordain him because he was uneducated in Latin, theology, and philosophy.  However, his brother tutored him in Latin and he was eventually accepted as a candidate for the priesthood.

Wanted to service the poor and sick

Joseph took the name "Damien" after a fourth century saint who provided free medical care for the poor. Like his namesake, Damien wanted to serve the poor and sick and show them the love of Christ.

Most importantly, Damien believed he was called to be a missionary. His brother Pamphile was scheduled to go to Hawaii, but he caught typhus and could not go. Damien wrote a letter to his superior general, begging to go in his brother's place.  The general gave his permission and soon Damien was on his way to Hawaii.

Encountered leprosy in Hawaii

When he arrived in Hawaii, Damien encountered a scene of near panic. The dreaded disease of leprosy had recently come to the islands, possibly carried there by infected sailors. With no cure at the time, it was a terrible disease that attacks the skin, nerves, and limbs of sufferers and eventually leads to death.

In the 19th century, nobody knew what caused leprosy, so lepers were sent to live in leper colonies.  The Hawaiian government established these colonies at an isolated spot on the island of Molokai, but provided only a dollar a year to support each sufferer. This amount was hardly sufficient to provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and other basic necessities.

In Hawaii Damien was ordained a priest by Bishop Maigret. Damien was sent to work on the main island of Hawaii, but neither Bishop Maigret nor Damien could long forget the lepers.  Bishop Maigret was hesitant to ask any priests to serve among them, due to the danger of infection.

Bishop asks for volunteers

However, he finally had a meeting with the priests of Damien's congregation and asked for volunteers. In one of the great moments of missionary activity, all the missionaries volunteered. Only one was needed and Damian was selected.

Bishop Maigret introduced him to the lepers as "one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you."

Shortly thereafter, Father Damien wrote to his brother that, "I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ."  He did not yet know how true his words would be.

Shortly after beginning what was supposed to be a three month stay, Damien volunteered to stay permanently, so other missionaries would not run the risk of infection. A sorrowful Bishop Maigret wrote to Damien, "You may stay as long as your devotion dictates. . . ."

Living among the lepers

It is difficult for us today to understand how bad the conditions were at the leper colony.  The 816 sufferers had received no medical care and no one had paid any attention to their personal hygiene.

Their flesh was literally rotting from their bones and the stench was intolerable.  "Many a time," Father Damien wrote, "in fulfilling my priestly duties at the lepers' homes, I have been obliged, not only to close my nostrils, but to remain outside to breathe fresh air."

For the next 16 years, Father Damien lived with the lepers. He built a church and led the people in worship, but he also took care of those who needed medical care.

He helped those who were capable of taking care of themselves to build houses, farms, and a much needed hospital. He brought in cattle and fruit trees so the colony could produce enough food for all the people who had to live there.

He worked with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Honolulu to solicit charitable donations from all over the world. He built coffins and buried the dead with his own hands.

He was joined by four people who helped him in the work: Fr. Louis Conrardy, another priest from Belgium, helped meet the spiritual needs of the people; Mother Marianne Cope, a Franciscan Sister from Syracuse, N.Y., organized the hospital; Joseph Dutton (for whom Brother Dutton School in Beloit is named), a recovering alcoholic, supervised the construction of the many buildings the colony needed;  and James Sinnett, a nurse from Chicago, helped take care of the sick and eventually nursed Damien when he became ill.

Contracts leprosy

One evening in December, 1884, Damien began his evening ritual of soaking his feet with hot water, but he soon realized he could not feel the heat of the water. He recognized he had contracted the deadly disease and his own life would be taken by it.

This moment, rather than bringing self-pity, spurred him into action. He spent the next months working furiously to build as many homes as he could before he died and to work to assure the continuation of programs that he had already begun.

He continued his work for four years, until he became so sick he could no longer continue. On April 15, 1889, he died at the age of 49.

Praise for Father Damien

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, wrote that Damien was, "with all his weakness, essentially heroic, and alive with rugged honesty, generosity, and mirth."

The great political leader, Mahatma Gandhi, father of Indian independence, offered even greater praise: "The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism."