Collection: St. Damien of Molokai
ARTIST: Brenda Nippert
Joseph DeVeuster, originally from Belgium, was a priest in the congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Sent to Hawaii, he volunteered to go to the island of Molokai to minister to people with leprosy or Hansen's disease. He found the leper colony in a state of chaos with the sad people living like animals. People with the disease were sent there with little supplies and no health care. They were dumped there to die alone so their disease would not spread to other parts of the country. Being thrown away by society, the lepers felt hopeless and unloved until Father Damien came to show them God's love and give them back their dignity.
He fixed up the church, built houses, and bandaged wounds. He brought them back to the sacraments, helped them make peace with the world, and then helped make their coffins and dig their graves. When his time in Molokai was up, Father Damien asked to stay permanently even though he knew that if he stayed, he could catch the disease and die from it. He did catch it and died, but not before changing the lives of hundreds of lepers. Even on his death bed, he never regretted it, feeling his purpose was to light the way to salvation for these people the world had turned its back on.
His feast day is May 10.
When Joseph de Veuster was born in Tremelo, Belgium, in 1840, few people in Europe had any firsthand knowledge of leprosy, Hansen's disease. By the time he died at the age of 49, people all over the world knew about this disease because of him. They knew that human compassion could soften the ravages of this disease.
Forced to quit school at age 13 to work on the family farm, Joseph entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary six years later, taking the name of a fourth-century physician and martyr. When his brother Pamphile, a priest in the same congregation, fell ill and was unable to go to the Hawaiian Islands as assigned, Damien quickly volunteered in his place. In May 1864, two months after arriving in his new mission, Damien was ordained a priest in Honolulu and assigned to the island of Hawaii.
In 1873, he went to the Hawaiian government's leper colony on the island of Moloka'i, set up seven years earlier. Part of a team of four chaplains taking that assignment for three months each year, Damien soon volunteered to remain permanently, caring for the people's physical, medical, and spiritual needs. In time, he became their most effective advocate to obtain promised government support.
Soon the settlement had new houses and a new church, school and orphanage. Morale improved considerably. A few years later, he succeeded in getting the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, led by Mother Marianne Cope, to help staff this colony in Kalaupapa.
Damien contracted Hansen's disease and died of its complications. As requested, he was buried in Kalaupapa, but in 1936 the Belgian government succeeded in having his body moved to Belgium. Part of Damien's body was returned to his beloved Hawaiian brothers and sisters after his beatification in 1995.
When Hawaii became a state in 1959, it selected Damien as one of its two representatives in the Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009.
Some people thought Damien was a hero for going to Moloka'i and others thought he was crazy. When a Protestant clergyman wrote that Damien was guilty of immoral behavior, Robert Louis Stevenson vigorously defended him in an “Open Letter to Dr. Hyde."