Brief Biography of
St. Damien of Molokai
Father Damien of Molokai, ss.cc. was born Josef de Veuster on January 3, 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium. His parents were farmers. His father sent him to a college at Braine-le-Comte. Because of a mission he attended given by the Redemptorists in 1858, Joseph decided to become a religious. He entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, SS.CC. at Louvain, taking the name of Damien in his first vows. Following his brother Auguste, he became a Picpus Brother on October 7, 1860. He took the name Bro. Damianus, after St. Damien, an early Christian saint who performed miracles. On March 19, 1864, Damien arrived in Honolulu in the Kingdom of Hawaii as a missionary still in minor orders. There, Damien was ordained to the priesthood on May 24, 1864 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, a church built by his religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
Fr. Damien was serving at several parishes on the island of Oahu when he became aware of the public health crisis in Hawaii. Many of his parishoners were among the Hawaiians who became afflicted by diseases brought to the islands by Europeans, American and other foreign sailors. Thousands were dying from influenza, syphilis and other ailments that never before affected Hawaiians, esp. leprosy, known today as Hansen's Disease.
Hawaiian King Kamehameha IV was afraid leprosy would spread so he segregated the lepers by creating a colony, moving them to an isolated settlement on the island of Molokai. The Board of Health provided them with supplies and food but did not yet have the manpower nor resources to provide proper healthcare to the lepers.
Fr Damien was concerned about the care of their souls if they were to be sent to this desolate area, named Kalaupapa, which was surrounded by an impregnable mountain ridge. Fr. Damien's brother was orignally assigned to be missionary to the lepers but he became ill. Fr. believed that the lepers should at least have a priest to tend to their spiritual needs so he volunteered knowing it was a definite death sentence, so he asked his bishop to be sent to Molokai.
On May 10, 1873, Fr. Damien arrived at the isolated settlement at Kalaupapa. Bishop Louis Maigret, ss.cc. presented Fr. Damien to the 600 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." Fr. Damien was sent to a morally deprived, lawless colony of death where people fought each other to survive.
His first project was to build the Parish Church of St. Philomena so the people might learn the Catholic faith and have a place to worship Our Lord in the "Blessed Sacrament, (is) indeed the stimulus for us all for me as it should be for you to forsake all worldly ambitions." He taught that "the Eucharist is the bread that gives strength. It is at once the most eloquent proof of His love and the most powerful means to foster His love in us. He gives Himself every day so that our hearts as burning coals may set afire the hearts of the faithful.”
The King of Hawaii didn't plan the settlement to be in chaos but he neglected to provide desparately needed resources, which contributed to the confusion and disorganization in the colony. Fr. Damien changed an impossible situation into a colony of life by teaching, painting grass shacks into painted houses, organizing farms and constructing buildings, chapels and roads. He restored faith in his battered and neglected flock. He showed them that despite what the outside world told them, they were precious in the eyes of God. He taught them to believe in God and showed them that by his genuine acts of charity that what there was purpose in their lives. He restored personal pride and dignity among so many who had given up hope. He organized a band, horse riding and choir.
Fr. Damien worked providing comfort for the people of Kalaupapa for sixteen years. He was not just their priest, but a builder of homes and their doctor, too. He dressed their ulcers, and tended the sick and dying at their bedsides, bringing them meager portions of taro, fish and water and tried to cheer the despairing with sweets.
He built their coffins and dug their graves. He liked praying at the cemetary, “My greatest pleasure is to go there [the cemetery] to say my beads, and meditate on that unending happiness which so many of them are already enjoying.” Fr. grew to love his parishioners as his own children, caring for lepers of all ages, especially for the children segregated in the colony for whom he created an orphanage.
"Without the constant presence of our Divine Master upon the altar in my poor chapels, I never could have persevered casting my lot with the afflicted of Molokai; the foreseen consequence of which begins now to appear on my skin and is felt throughout the body." In 1885, he announced, "I am one of you;" he was a leper yet he continued to build hospitals, clinics, and churches, and some six hundred coffins.
Fr. Damien had a chance to leave the island if he wanted to. In the spring of 1873 his superiors sent a letter giving him permission to stay, "You may stay as long as your devotion dictates...." He was overjoyed, he had permission to stay where he was and where he longed with all his heart to be with the people he loved.
His most controversial accomplishment was to take the plight of his Hawaiian to the world raising money for the much needed improvements he needed to improve the standard of living in the colony gaining support from around the world e.g. Anglicans in England at the disapproval of his superiors.
Fr. Damien de Veuster was a priest of profound faith, "Holy Communion being the daily bread of a priest, I feel myself happy, well pleased, and resigned in the rather exceptional circumstances in which it has pleased Divine Providence to put me. Were it not for the constant presence of our divine Master in our humble chapel, I would not have found it possible to persevere in sharing the lot of the afflicted in Molokai…the Eucharist is the bread that gives strength. It is at once the most eloquent proof of his love and the most powerful means of foster His love in us. He gives Himself every day so hat our hearts as burning coals may set afire the hearts of the faithful,”
He died April 15, 1889 on his beloved Molokai the age of forty-nine. This is the tomb of St. Damien on Molokai. Father Damien was initially buried in Kalaupapa, but his body was later moved to Tremolo, Belgium. But in 1995, his right hand was returned to Kalaupapa.
Saint Damien is the patron of those with leprosy, outcasts, HIV, AIDS and the State of Hawaii. Do not hesitate to call him to help you in your time of need.
Prayer to St. Damien of Molokai-- Diocese of Honolulu.
St. Damien, brother on the journey,
Happy and generous missionary,
who loved the Gospel more than your life,
who for love of Jesus left your family,
your homeland, your security, your dreams,
Teach us to give our lives with a joy like yours,
to be in solidarity with the outcasts of the world,
to celebrate and contemplate the Eucharist
as the source of our commitment.
Help us to love to the very end
and, in the strength of the Spirit,
to persevere in compassion
for the poor and forgotten
so that we might be good disciples of Jesus and Mary.
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Against the backdrop of massive cliffs, Fr. Damien built Kalaupapa Village and St. Philomena Catholic Church on an isolated beach on the northern shore of Molokai. Fr. Damien took a hopeless existence and inspired settlers to become a thriving parish community. He inspired young and old by his example and charity.