Blessed Damien of Molokai

Father Damien of Molokai (1840-1899)
(and extract of the book, Holy Man-Father Damien of Molokai by Graven Daws.)

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Father Damien of Molokai devoted his life to the humane care of lepers and he died of the disease. His story is offered here as an inspiration to us all. His work brought about the more humane care of lepers.

The story of Father Damien de Veuster begins on January 3, 1840, in Tremeloo, Belgium, with his birth. He was baptized Joseph, the youngest son and the seventh born of the eight children of Frans and Anne-Catherine De Veuster. Frans was a small farmer at Tremeloo, near Louvain, Belgium. They spoke Flemish. Joseph (Father Damien) went to Communion four times a year and confessed as a regular devout Catholic of his time. His mother would read aloud about the lives of the saints. Three of the children, besides Joseph, gave their lives to the service of the Church.

As a child, Joseph was known to be sociable, competitive, and a trickster. However Joseph was also religious. His mother discovered a hard board on his bed, which he used to mortify his flesh. Auguste, Joseph's brother, later took the name Brother Pamphile, and became a religious leader in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Meanwhile, Joseph, at the age of thirteen years, was big and strong enough to work in the fields with his father. Joseph followed in his brother's footsteps and entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He took his habit on February 2, 1858, under the religious name of Brother Damien. His superiors thought he was not a good candidate for the priesthood, because of his lack of education. However, he was not considered unintelligent. He learned his Latin well from his brother and his superiors decided to allow him to become a priest. During his ecclesiastical studies, he used to pray everyday before a picture of St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, to be sent to a mission. His brother was assigned to the Hawaiian Islands as a missionary, but became ill with typhus and was unable to sail. Damien asked to replace his brother, even though he had not yet been ordained. The Congregation gave him permission and after a five-month voyage, he arrived in Honolulu, on March 19, 1864. He was ordained a priest on May 21, 1864 by Bishop Maigret. As a new priest, Damien wrote to his parents about his experience in Hawaii:

Here I am a priest, dear parents, here I am a missionary in a corrupt, heretical, idolatrous country. How great my obligations are! Ah! do not forget this poor priest running night and day over the volcanoes night and day in search of strayed sheep. Pray night and day for me, I beg You!

Father Damien was assigned to a large volcanic region, where they worshipped a goddess. Because he traveled so much, when a Hawaiian asked him where he lived, he pointed to the saddle and said "this is my home." He then began to learn the local language. In his homilies, he preached against the open sexual misbehavior of the natives. Adultery, concubinage, and pagan customs were rampant, at this time. One pagan custom involved the sacrifice of a pig or chicken to please their god Aumakua. Fr. Damien suffered from loneliness and "black thought," which we now know was melancholy. He pleaded with his superiors to send him another priest. He even went so far as to send a letter requesting that his brother, no longer ill, be sent to him. Bishop Maigret then asked his priests if any would be interested in serving at Molokai, the leprosy settlement. The faithful had been living and dying there, in desperate conditions, without the sacraments.

Fr. Damien was ready to be the first to go to Molokai, and on May 10, 1873, they had their first priest. The Board of Health had been conducting a strict isolation and segregation policy to keep leprosy under control. Leprosy had become an epidemic in Hawaii and all measures were sought to contain it, thus the creation of a leprosy settlement in Molokai. The disease was believed to be the fault of white man, "haole," who brought the disease to the islands.

Fr. Damien was physically strong and worked hard at Molokai. He became emotionally strong and overcame his fears of the disease. Most importantly, he was a strong father, who provided for the needs of his spiritual children. He began to build hospitals,orphanages, houses, and all kinds of buildings. By 1888, he had helped to build many of the 374 buildings on the island. Despite the apparent contagiousness of the disease, Hawaiians needed to be touched and affirmed physically. Fr. Damien, knew first hand, the horror of the disease with the horrible smell of rotting flesh, as masses of worms bared the intestines and ribs of the victims. At first, he had a terrible repugnance towards the fetid odor, the disfigured faces, and the sores from which pus oozed forth. A leper was considered an "untouchable." Fr. Damien touched all and worked with all. He used to invite people into his house and would use it as a place for some who had no home. He made flutes for the fingerless, held races with children that had only stumps for feet, and had holes put in the floor of St. Philemina to allow the sick to spit on the ground. He tried as many innovations as possible to help the people. He not only acted as physician, but healed their souls as well. There were two hundred (200) Catholics among the six hundred (600) at the settlement, upon Fr. Damien's arrival. Within ten days he had twenty catechumens, the following week he performed thirty baptisms, and by the end of his first six months, he had four hundred catechumens. In addition to this, he began perpetual Eucharistic adoration at the settlement. This gave the lepers a place to pour their hearts out to the Lord in the midst of their sufferings. Because of his spiritual successes, the Protestants living on other islands became outraged at "the Papist."

Father Damian, in the meantime, suffered from terrible loneliness and was unable to go to confession regularly. All his life, he begged the bishop and his superiors to send him someone. Because many were fearful of the disease, Fr. Damien had to confess from the shore by shouting to a priest on a ship and then receiving absolution. Finally, Fr. Andre Burgerman, a Dutchman, was sent to help him, but he ended up being more of a thorn in the side than help. Constant disagreements and complaints occurred between the two until finally Fr. Andre was believed to have caught the disease and was removed from the settlement for care. Fr. Albert Montiton, a Frenchman, was then assigned to help Fr. Damien. He believed the leprosy was transmitted by sexually immoral people and was the result of syphilis, and he also accused Fr. Damien of sexual immorality. Fr. Albert put Fr. Damien through a bad period by invading his territory, ordering him around and telling him how to be a priest. However, Fr. Albert was a sick man with elephantiasis and was later transferred out of Molokai for health reasons. Again Fr. Damien was alone and his superiors were of no support to him. A long battle erupted between Fr. Damien and Bishop Koeckemann and his superior Fr. Fouesnel, who believed Damien to be a troublemaker, unable to get along with other priests.

Fr. Damien suffered not only from his superiors. In 1882, he began to experience pain in his left leg and his feet, yet he still had not contracted the leprosy, even though he had been there for ten years. Before he arrived at the settlement, he wrote to his brothers and sisters and stated:

As for me, since I am coming to the leprosy settlement, I have confided to Our Lord, His Holy Mother and St. Joseph the matter of health.

Walter Murray Gibson, a Protestant minister and doctor became the primary political leader, in Hawaii, under King David Kalakaua. He allocated five percent of the nation's resources to control leprosy. This amounted to six dollars for each leper, and each person was allocated one cent per month for drugs. He made leprosy political and brought Catholicism into politics. Dr. Gibson was another thorn for Fr. Damien. He had to ask for supplies from Dr. Gibson who often gave them begrudgingly. There were three theories about how leprosy was transmitted: (1) genetics (2) sexual misconduct, and (3) touch. Many remedies were tried, including a blend of dog manure and molasses, yet nothing seemed to work. In 1883, Dr. Eduard Christian Arning, a second-generation student of Armaver/Herhard Hansen (1840-1912), who discovered the Bacillus leprae, came to Molokai to do research. He discredited the syphilis theory and was of great help to Fr. Damien at the settlement.

By 1883, Fr. Damien had lost the feeling in his leg and redness appeared on his foot -- he had contracted leprosy. In 1885, a small leprous tubercle appeared, on the left lobe of his ear, and his eyebrows fell off. He asked Our Lady of Montaigu for the privilege of serving twelve years, in 1863, and now twenty-two years later he had the disease. He wrote letters to his brothers and mother informing them of the leprosy. Upon opening the letter, his mother died of a heart attack. She died with a photograph of her son (Fr. Damien) and a picture of the Blessed Virgin in her hand. Still without a priest to assist him, Fr. Damien begged for assistence. The bishop and his superior, thinking him a troublemaker, received news that he had written a personal letter, which was published in the newspaper. The letter complained that the bishop, the government, and his community would not support the settlement. This problem caused him great turmoil and he made his superiors reluctant to send help for him. Fr. Founsel would not let Fr. Damien come to Honolulu to go to confession or seek treatment. Hundreds of people, hearing about the plight of Fr. Damien, offered to come and help him. One such person was Ira Barnes Dutton, who had fought in the American Civil War. Dutton had separated from his wife and had been a heavy drinker, but he wanted to help. Because he entered the Catholic Church and desired to do penance until his death, he came to Molokai and was a big help to Fr. Damien. Still, Fr. Founsel, the Bishop, and Dr. Gibson gave Fr. Damien, and his new helper, terrible trouble.

Fr. Conrady, hearing of the misfortunes of Fr. Damien, came to the island. Soon the Franciscan sisters arrived too. Fr. Conrady began to write letters that ended up in newspapers. The letters revealed the harshness of Fr. Founcel and the gloom of the settlement. Because of these letters, many priests wanted to come to Molokai. The bishop relented. He allowed four priests to work at the settlement. With an arm in a sling, a foot in bandages, and his leg dragging, Fr. Damien knew death was near. He was bedridden on March 23 and on March 30, 1889, he made a general confession and renewed his vows. On April 1st, he received Holy Viaticum; and on April 2nd, he received Extreme Unction. During the following days, Fr. Conrady would walk from the Church to the house to give him Communion, while the altar servers would ring the bells in procession with lit candles. Fr. Damien told those around him that there were two figures at his bed; one at the head and the other at the foot. It is unknown who these figues were, but perhaps they could have been Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin. At forty-five years of age, on April 15, 1889, at 8:00 a.m.; Father Damien died. His death was only four days before Good Friday. He was buried with two thousand (2,000) other lepers near St. Philomena's Church.

News of Fr. Damien's death arrived at Honolulu on the same day, and within a month all the world heard the sad news. A monument was built, at the settlement in Molokai, in 1893. Fr. Damien's brother, Fr. Pamphile, announced that he would publish his letters. In 1895, the Congregation asked his brother to come to Molakai and work. He arrived there but it was difficult for him, so he returned to Belgium. Because of the charity towards lepers was primarily Catholic, Protestants - such as Dr. Hyde - attacked Fr. Damien after his death. He accused Fr. Damien of contracting the disease by sexual relations. Robert Louis Stephenson wrote the book, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde based on this situation. He condemned Dr. Hyde's alegations against Fr. Damien. The annexation of Hawaii by the United States of America, in 1898, caused the Hawaiians to become American citizens. This resulted in a huge allocation, from the U.S. government, to build a scientific station near Molokai. It was abandoned two years later, because the lepers refused to use it. In 1936, Fr. Damien's body was taken to Belgium, and in 1938, the process of beautification was opened. During the 1940's, a new drug called DDS became successful in curing leprosy. It was no longer a social disease, because segregation was no longer required. In 1959, the territory of Hawaii became a state, and each state was allowed to place statues of their dead in the Capital building in Washington, D.C. A statue of Father Damien was erected. Father Damien was declared Blessed on June 4, 1995, by Pope John Paul II.


A Prayer

Almighty Father, we praise thy name for thy servant Damien, missionary to the lepers, and for all those who, following in the footsteps of thy beloved Son, have preached the good news of salvation to the despised and rejected of the earth, not counting the cost to themselves; and we pray that thy love for us may enkindle in our hearts an answering love for thee and our neighbors, and that thy grace may give us wisdom to see the opportunities thou givest us to serve thee, and the courage to grasp them; that in all things we may be made conformable unto the image of the same thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, who now liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.


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Daws, Gavan. Holy Man - Father Damien of Molokai. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1973.

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