He was a Belgian
priest and a simple man born into a family of farmers. Nature had
prepared his square, sturdy, and well developed body to till the soil,
but God had summoned him to labor in a different field, to give his
life away in order to bring the Sacraments and lessen the suffering to
a colony of outcasts on a distant Pacific Island, Molokai, part of the
Hawaiian archipelago. This colony was a leper colony in the 19th
century, when fear and ignorance caused these poor souls to be shipped,
some by force, from all the islands of that region to the isolated
north shore of Molokai. Those who were sent there not only suffered
from the dread disease, but also from the cruelty of being "abandoned"
by the world.
"Fifty cents per week is allowed each person for food and out of this we must also provide sugar and salt." They need warm wear, "not the thin, rotten clothing that is now brought here-----a useless waste of money." They wanted but lacked basic mail service as the letters they sent never reached their destination. They were lonely and longed for visits from those who cared for them and finally they wanted decent burials: "Let our dead be provided with coffins or else let us be furnished with the materials for making them . . ."
To this condemned community there came in 1873 a singular volunteer, Fr. Joseph de Veuster, better known as Father Damien. He had been shepherded by the will of God and his own compassion to the Hawaiian Islands as a missionary priest. He was courageous, tenacious and his goodness was immediately visible, despite the stocky "coarseness" he inherited from his forebears. his least concern was for himself: ten years after his arrival, in 1883, he, too, would have leprosy. The above painting is a perfect likeness of him as a young priest and in his later years, faithful to the collection of photographs that have been saved.
Father De Veuster, thirty-three, had already served nine years in the Hawaiian missions. He was a member of the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts, who had pioneered Catholicism in the islands. These religious had faced and overcome enormous problems since their arrival in 1827. Now they faced a new and frightful challenge, a leprosy epidemic. To halt the spread of the dread disease, the Hawaiian government had isolated several hundred lepers at Kalaupapa, on the island of Molokai. Catholic lepers there begged for a priest. Many missionaries, despite danger of contagion, had offered to go. The Bishop, Louis Maigret, and Father Modeste, the religious superior of the Sacred Hearts Fathers, had selected Damien to begin the mission. Both were reluctant to put such a crushing burden permanently on this young priest’s square and sturdy shoulders. The Bishop and Father Modeste knew the bitter work that had to be done; they hesitated to demand that this one man do so much of it.
Bishop "Louis" accompanied Damien to Molokai, proudly presenting the new pastor to the Catholic lepers. The joy of their welcome and Damien’s excitement upon finally arriving at Molokai, dimmed the fact that he carried with him little more than his Breviary. Sacred Hearts religious previously had built a tiny chapel on Molokai, and had dedicated it to St. Philomena. For his first rectory, Damien used the shelter of a pandanus tree, beside the little church. The pandanus offered hospitality to all passing creatures, centipedes, scorpions, ants, roaches and, finally, fleas. Cats, dogs and sheep found shelter under the tree’s kind branches. Damien settled in comfortably. A large rock on the side of the tree served as his dinner table. During these first weeks the new missionary took normal precautions to avoid contagion.
With the lepers’ help, Damien added the rear wing to Molokai’s chapel. He also built the rectory. The priest was a skillful carpenter. No construction project daunted him.
Molokai was a colony of shame, peopled by lost souls and smashed bodies. Medical care was minimal. Even if decent care were provided, Hawaiians distrusted the white man’s medicine, preferring their own witch doctors, or kahuna. White doctors sporadically appeared at government expense. These physicians lived in terror of contagion. One doctor examined lepers’ wounds by lifting their bandages with his cane. Another left medicine on a table where lepers could collect it without touching him.
At the outset of his mission Damien aimed to restore in each leper a sense of personal worth and dignity. To show his poor battered flock the value of their lives, he had to demonstrate to them the value of their deaths. And so he turned his attention first to the cemetery area beside his little chapel. He fenced it around to protect the graves from the pigs, dogs, and other scavengers. He constructed coffins and dug graves. He organized the lepers into the Christian Burial Association to provide decent burial for each deceased. The organization arranged for the requiem Mass, the proper funeral ceremonies, and sponsored a musical group that played during the funeral procession.
Damien continued to minister to the sick, bringing the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion and anointing bedridden lepers. He washed their bodies, bandaged their wounds and tidied their rooms and beds. He did all he could to make them as comfortable as possible.
He encouraged lepers to help him in all his activities. With their assistance he built everything from coffins to cottages. He constructed the rectory, built a home for the lepers’ children. When the colony expanded along the peninsula to Kalaupapa, he hustled the lepers into construction of a good road between Kalawao and Kalaupapa. Under his direction, lepers blasted rocks at the Kalaupapa shoreline and opened a decent docking facility. Damien taught his people to farm, to raise animals, to play musical instruments, to sing. He watched with pride as the leper bands he organized marched up and down playing the music Hawaiians love so well. No self-pity in this colony. Damien’s cheerful disposition and desire to serve touched the lepers’ hearts without patronizing or bullying them. Little by little their accomplishments restored the sense of dignity their illness threatened to destroy.
No one could deny that he was a headstrong person. But no one who knew him could deny that he was a man of warm and tender heart. He quickly forgave injuries and never bore a grudge.
In 1888, the Englishman Edward Clifford visited Damien. "I had gone to Molokai expecting to find it scarcely less dreadful than hell itself," Clifford wrote, "and the cheerful people, the lovely landscapes, and comparatively painless life were all surprises. These poor people seemed singularly happy."
Clifford asked lepers if they missed not being back home. They replied, "Oh, no! We’re well off here. The government watches over us, the superintendent is good, and we like our pastor. He builds our houses himself, he gives us tea, biscuits, sugar and clothes. He takes good care of us and doesn’t let us want for anything."
Stern Puritan ministers felt leprosy was the inevitable result of the Hawaiian people’s licentiousness. In their puritanical judgment the Hawaiian people were corrupt and debased. The segregation policy would have to be enforced to hasten the inevitable physical and moral collapse of the essentially rotten Hawaiian culture. There were medical doctors who were so convinced of an essential connection between leprosy and sexual immorality that they insisted that leprosy could be spread only through sexual contact.
When Damien entered his prison at Molokai, he had to make a decision. He believed that the Hawaiians were basically good and not essentially corrupt. And now he had to show them belief, regardless of the price. Thus, somewhere during the first part of his stay he made the dread decision to set aside his fear of contagion. He touched his lepers, he embraced them, he dined with them, he cleaned and bandaged their wounds and sores. He placed the host upon their battered mouths. He put his thumb on their forehead when he anointed them with the holy oil. All these actions involved touch. Touch is, of course, necessary if one is to communicate love and concern. The Hawaiians instinctively knew this. And that is why the Hawaiians shrank from the Yankee divines. Although these Yankee religious leaders expended much money on their mission endeavors, few Hawaiians joined their churches. The islanders sensed the contempt in which the puritan minds held them.
During one time when the isolation policy was being strictly enforced, a ship’s captain, reacting to the government’s orders, forbade Damien’s bishop to disembark on Molokai. In order to see the bishop, Damien sailed out to the boat. The captain refused Damien’s request to board. The priest pleaded in vain with the captain, saying that he wanted to confess his sins. "Bishop," the priest called to the boat, "will you hear my Confession from here?" The bishop consented, and Damien in an exercise of humility that touched all who witnessed it, confessed his sins aloud to the bishop.
One day in December, 1884, while soaking his feet in extremely hot water, Father De Veuster experienced no sensation of heat or pain. The evil disease he had battled for so long now claimed him. In his last years he engaged in a flurry of activity. He hastened to complete his many building projects, enlarge his orphanages, organize his work. Help came from four unexpected sources. A priest, a soldier, a male nurse, and a nun. The soldier, Joseph Dutton, was the most unusual man. He had survived Civil War combat, a broken marriage and several years of hard drinking to show up on Molokai’s shores in July, 1886. He stayed forty-five years without ever leaving the colony. He served the lepers of the Baldwin Home for Boys. Joseph was never seriously ill until just before his death in 1931. He was just short of eighty-eight. Another layman, James Sinnett, a man who had a colorful and checkered career, during which he gained some experience in nursing in Mercy Hospital, Chicago, came to Molokai eight months before Father Damien died. The leper priest called him "Brother James." He nursed Father Damien during the final phase of his illness, and closed his eyes in death. During the last days of Damien’s life, Sinnett served as his secretary. He was faithful to the very end, and when Damien died, Sinnett left the colony. Nothing was heard from him thereafter.
Louis-Lambert Conrardy, a fellow Belgian, joined Father Damien May 17,
1888. Archbishop William Gross of Oregon generously permitted Father
Conrardy to leave his own priest-poor area to labor in Molokai.
Archbishop Gross wrote of Conrardy: "I have trampled all over Oregon
with Father Conrardy and he is a noble, heroic man ... Though he knows
and realizes perfectly that he might succomb to the disease, his
voluntary going is real heroism." Conrardy and Damien joined in their
unreserved dedication to the lepers. Along with this, Conrardy provided
the spiritual and social companionship that Damien so desperately
He died on April 15, 1889 at the age of 49. His Feast Day has been established for the members of his religious community as May 10. It may also be celebrated in the Hawaiian Islands on that day. He has been admitted to the first two ranks of the altar, Venerable and Blessed.
When I was a young girl he was my favorite hero. Let us pray that he will soon be raised to the full rank of Saint.