Faithful Heroes: Father Damien, Apostle of the Lepers

 

Father Damien brought the message of Christ to the people of Hawaii as he worked with the lepers there. He is known as the Apostle of the Lepers.

He was born Jozef De Veuster on January 3, 1840 in Tremelo, Brabant, Belgium. He was

young Father Damien

the youngest of seven children born to Joannes Franciscus and Anne-Catherine Wouters De Veuster.

Instead of taking over the farm, as was assumed, he attended college in Braine-le-Comte. He took the name Brother Damianus when he took his vows to enter the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Leuven, also known as a Picpus brother.

He took the name from Saint Damien, who was martyred in Syria in 287 AD, and is considered an early Christian saint who performed miracles.

At first he was denied candidacy to the priesthood due to his lack of education. After learning Latin from his brother {also a priest}, his superiors relented.

He prayed daily before a picture of the patron saint of missionaries, St. Francis Xavier, to be sent on mission work. That request was granted three years later.

He landed at Honolulu Harbor in Oahu on March 19, 1964. He was ordained a priest two months later.

He served at several churches while dealing with the high morality rate and labor

Father Damien in 1873 before heading to Hawaii

shortage.

Leprosy began to spread throughout the area and in fear Hawaiian King Kamehameha IV and the Hawaiian Legislature passed the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. “This law quarantined the lepers of Hawaii, requiring the most serious cases to be moved to a settlement colony of Kalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokaʻi. Later the settlement of Kalaupapa was developed.”

Four priest, including Father Damien, volunteered to minister to the leper colony. Father Damien was the first to arrive on May 10, 1873.

At his arrival he spoke to the assembled 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”. He worked to build a church and helped in other areas, such as dressing ulcers, building homes and furniture and coffins, digging graves and building a reservoir. He also organized farms, chapels, roads, hospitals and churches, painted houses, and provided teaching. He lived with the lepers as an equal, eating and sleeping with them and smoking pipes alongside them. He would also provide comfort for the dying and pray over the deceased at the cemetery.

Father Damien with the Kalawao Girls Choir at Kalaupapa Moloaki cira 1878

Six months after his arrival at Kalawao, he wrote to his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: “…I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”

The community greatly improved under his leadership and this became a turning point for the colony. At his request, he remained with the colony.

King David Kalākaua bestowed on Damien the honor of “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua”. Crown Princess Lydia Liliʻuokalani, who presented his medal, shared her experience, which brought him to international renown.

He worked alongside the Hawaiian people of the colony for sixteen years. By this time he had battled with leporasy of his own for the last five years. He was treated during this time by a Japanese leprologist, Masanao Goto.

Father Damien photographed by William Brigham

During his illness he worked on a flurry of projects to finish “as much as possible with his time remaining”.

He died at the age of forty-nine of April 15, 1889. He was laid to rest “under the same pandanus tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokaʻi.”. The entire settlement turned out for his funeral.

Above his grave on Molokai his friends set a black marble cross with the inscription, “Damien de Veuster, Died a Martyr of Charity.”

In January 1936, his body was returned to his native Belgium, at the request of King Leopold III. In June 1995, the remains of his right hand were returned to Hawaii and re-interred in the original cemetery.

original grave of Father Damien in Hawaii

The Catholic church beatified him in 1995 and canonized him in 2009. His feast day is May 10th. The Catholics refer to him as St. Damien of Molokai.

April 15, the day of his passing, is a minor statewide holiday in Hawaii.

 

 

 

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