St. Damien of Molokai

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Today, May 10, is the Memorial of St. Damien of Molokai.

Joseph de Veuster was born in Tremelo, Belgium on January 3, 1840. He quit school at the age of thirteen in order to work the family farm. In 1860, he joined the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary at Louvain, taking the name Damien after a fourth century martyr and physician. He prayed daily before an image of St. Francis Xavier, asking the saint’s intercession to help him become a missionary. When his brother, Pamphile, also a priest of the same order , could not fulfill his call to be a missionary in Hawaii because of illness, Damien immediately volunteered to take his place. Damien arrived in Honolulu in March, 1864 and was ordained a priest two months later.

After serving nine years in Hawaii, Damien learned of a leper colony run by the Kingdom of Hawaii on the island of Molokai. Those with Hansen’s disease (the medical name for leprosy) were kept isolated on the island to prevent spread of the condition. Father Damien volunteered to serve the lepers of Molokai, eventually asking that his assignment to the colony be permanent. This request was granted by his superiors. Damien, filled with compassion for the residents of the colony, served their needs as nurse, counselor, and spiritual father. With the help of money from the Kingdom of Hawaii, he established a school, built roads, established the rule of law, improved homes for the lepers, founded an orphanage and a church, Saint Philomena’s.

King David Kalakaua honored Father Damien as a “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua.” Crown Princess Lydia Lili’ uokalani visited the colony to honor Father Damien with a medal, but was so overcome by the sight of the lepers she was unable to give her speech. Nevertheless, she spoke to many of Father Damien’s heroic efforts on behalf of the lepers of Molokai, so that Father Damien’s work became internationally known. Protestant missionaries and the Church of England sent money, food, medicine, clothes, and various other supplies to the colony.

In December, 1884, Father Damien learned that he had contracted leprosy when he accidentally put his foot into a bath of scalding hot water. The foot blistered, but he felt nothing. Knowing he had limited time left, he worked even harder at serving the residents of Molokai and improving their lives. Four volunteers arrived to assist Father Damien, Fr. Louis Conrardy, a Belgium priest, who attended to the spiritual and sacramental needs of the colony, Joseph Dutton, a veteran of the American Civil War, who took responsibility for construction and maintenance of the various buildings of the colony, James Sinnett, a male nurse from Chicago, who attended to Father Damien’s needs during his illness, and Mother Marianne Cope, a German Franciscan Sister, who had founded a hospital in Syracuse, New York and served the medical needs of the colony. Mother Cope would also be canonized by the Church.

Father Damien died of leprosy on April 15, 1889 at the age of 49. The next day, Mass was celebrated for the repose of his soul, and he was buried under a pandanus tree on the island. In 1939, Belgium requested and Hawaii consented to transfer Father Damien’s remains to his home country, where he is buried in Leuven. After his beatification in 1995, the remains of his right hand were returned to Hawaii and re-buried in his original grave at Molokai.

Father Damien’s statue stands on the grounds of the State Capitol building in Honolulu and a replica of this statue stands in Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol, one of two statues representing Hawaii, (the other is King Kamehameha I). Father Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Father Damien remains one of the most revered saints associated with the United States, honored and celebrated among those of many religious traditions.

St. Damien of Molokai, pray for us.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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