On May 11, 1873, the steamer Kilauea deposited thirty-three-year-old Father Joseph Damien de Veuster on the landing at Molokai. Bishop Maigret told the disease-ridden crowd gathered there that he had brought them “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.”
Damien’s life was to become truly a sacrifice of love as he cared for those afflicted with leprosy, the disease ultimately consuming his own body. Eighty years after Damien’s death, Pope Paul VI said of him: “Love expresses itself in giving. Saints have not only given of themselves, but they have given of themselves in the service of God and their brethren. Father Damien is certainly in that category. He lived his life of love and dedication in the most heroic yet unassuming way. He lived for others: those whose needs were the greatest.”
As a Young Missionary. Born January 3, 1840, in Tremeloo, Belgium, Joseph followed his elder brother August into the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. On October 7, 1860, as he made his vows, the twenty-year-old novice prostrated himself before the altar and was covered by the black funeral pall that his congregation used for these ceremonies. Lying there under such a powerful symbol that identified him with the crucified Christ, Joseph offered himself completely to the Lord. The memory of this ceremony was to pervade his whole life.
A few years later, August was among several priests chosen to work in Hawaii, but he contracted typhus and was not able to sail. Joseph, who took the name Damien when he made his religious vows, begged his superior to allow him to take his brother’s place. Permission was granted.
When Damien’s ship dropped anchor in Honolulu in 1864, one-third of the population of the Hawaiian Islands was Catholic, the result of the efforts of European missionaries. Protestants from New England had also labored among the kanakas, the native Hawaiians, since 1820, and Christianity had been accepted by the Hawaiian monarchy.
Damien served nine years on the Big Island of Hawaii. Robust in body and exuberant by nature, he was renowned among his parishioners for his untiring enthusiasm, his cheerfulness, and his physical strength. He was not content just to preach the gospel. He helped his people by farming and raising livestock, and he even drew upon his carpentry skills to build eight chapels and churches on the island. The kanakas translated his name into their lilting language and fondly called him Makna [Father] Kamiano.
The “Separating Sickness.” An ancient disease, leprosy was known in Egypt, Israel, India, Greece, and Rome. In the Middle Ages, it also spread rapidly across Europe. To protect the populace from contagion, strict laws were enacted that banned the afflicted from all social contact. There was little treatment for the disease and no hope for a cure. As a consequence, in addition to their physical sufferings, leprosy victims also bore the stigma of being “outcast” and “unclean.”
By the fifteenth century, leprosy had declined in Europe, but it was carried to the New World by sailors and slaves alike. It probably came to Hawaii via trading ships that had visited Chinese ports. In 1865, at the urging of the white population who were terrified of an epidemic, King Kamehameda V issued a law of segregation. From that point on, leprosy came to be known as Ma’i Ho’oka’ awale, the “separating sickness.”
The government purchased property on the island of Molokai to establish a settlement where those afflicted with leprosy could be segregated. The site of the leprosarium, Kalawao, was on a promontory surrounded by the sea on three sides and backed on the fourth by sheer cliffs cutting it off from the rest of the island.
The settlement plan was ill-conceived. The Board of Health officials naively envisioned a self-sustaining community, with those who were still able-bodied building shelters and farming, providing for those too ill to work as well as for themselves. When the first 141 lepers were taken to Molokai in 1866, they had no dwellings, few provisions, and no resident doctor or priest. The government had underestimated the demoralizing effects of sending the sick into exile. They felt hopeless, cut off from their loved ones, and doomed to death. Molokai became a dreaded word.
An Offering of Love. In April 1873, newspaper editorials in Honolulu decried the situation at the settlement. Around this time, the Catholics at Kalawao also petitioned the bishop, asking him to do more than send them a visiting priest once a year. In response, Bishop Maigret conceived a rotation plan whereby priests would relieve each other in three-month intervals.
Damien was the first to volunteer. However, within days of his arrival, having seen the desperate needs of the eight hundred exiles at Kalawao, he wrote back: “I am bent on devoting my life to the lepers. It is absolutely necessary for a priest to live here. The afflicted are coming here by the boatloads.”
For sixteen years, Damien threw himself into his work. He went as a priest to serve the spiritual welfare of the Catholics at Kalawao, but once he arrived, he became a father to everyone, no matter what faith they professed.
Apostle of Charity. A man of enormous activity, Damien vigorously tackled every need, spiritual or physical, that he saw. He cleaned wounds, bandaged ulcers, even amputated gangrenous limbs. When a hurricane destroyed the exiles’ shabby huts, Damien petitioned the Board of Health for lumber and built three hundred houses for the sick. He laid a pipeline to a distant spring to supply water for the settlement. Previously, the dead had been thrown in a ravine or buried in graves so shallow that wild pigs ravaged the corpses. Damien dug graves, built coffins, and said funeral Masses. It is estimated that he built more than 1,600 coffins during his years at Molokai.
Knowing the kanakas’ love for festivities, he organized processions for the feast days and formed a choir and band. In time, the musicians became famous as they performed a Mozart Mass for the visiting bishop and serenaded Queen Regent Liliuokalani when she visited the island. After her visit in 1881, the queen honored Damien with the title of Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua.
Impetuous and energetic, Damien could also be brusque, especially when his unceasing pleas for more resources met with slow or meager responses. While he busied himself caring for the lepers and improving their situation, government officials and even his superiors occasionally hindered his efforts. The Hawaiian Islands were anticipating annexation by the United States, and there was virulent strife among the various parties controlling government funds. Damien never sought publicity, but when foreign newspapers acclaimed his work and organized campaigns to raise donations for Kalawao, he was derided and criticized by the Board of Health and other mission groups. They were embarrassed by the implications that one man had outdone all of them in his commitment and energy.
Damien’s congregation also feared losing government favor and at times resented the public praise he received while other priests laboring in the islands were less recognized. Most of the sixteen years Damien spent on Molokai he was without the assistance of a resident doctor or companions from his congregation, though for some short periods priests who were themselves sick were assigned to aid him.
One Like His Brothers and Sisters. When he first came to Kalawao, Damien was careful to take precautions against the disease. Nevertheless, as he lived among his people, tending their sores, sharing their food, ministering the sacraments to them, and working with the same tools they did, he showed no fear of the disease or revulsion of his patients. He didn’t shrink back from the call to embrace them as his own brothers and sisters.
By 1885, after eleven years at Kalawao, it was evident that Damien had contracted leprosy. In a letter he wrote to his bishop around this time, he said: “It is the memory of having lain under the funeral pall twenty-five years ago—the day of my vows—that led me to brave the danger of contracting this terrible disease in doing my duty here and trying to die more and more to myself… the more the disease advances, I find myself content and happy at Kalawao.”
For the next five years, Damien continued to care for his fellow lepers. In 1888, Franciscan sisters came to Molokai to open an orphanage for girls. By then, Damien also had the help of two priests as well as Joseph Dutton, a lay American volunteer. Slowly, Damien’s body was overcome by leprosy as his face became terribly disfigured, his larynx and lungs infected, his hands and feet encrusted with sores. Nevertheless, he persisted in his tireless activity until three weeks before his death, on April 15, 1889. A few days before he died, he said, “The work of the lepers is in good hands and I am no longer necessary, so I shall go up yonder.” When those by his bedside grieved that he was leaving them orphaned, Damien replied: “Oh, no! If I have any credit with God, I’ll intercede for everyone.”
Damien’s Legacy. It was during Damien’s years at Molokai that a Norwegian doctor, Gerhard Hansen, first identified the bacillus of leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae. Today, treated with a regimen of medicines, the disease’s advance in the body can be slowed and sometimes totally halted. Once daily treatment begins, the patient is no longer contagious. However, Hansen’s disease, as leprosy is now called, still remains a serious illness presenting unsolved problems. The World Health Organization estimates that there are currently 10-12 million cases of Hansen’s disease worldwide.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” is engraved on a monument to Damien on Molokai. Damien’s presence there made the world realize that those afflicted with leprosy were not “unclean outcasts,” but vulnerable human beings whom God deeply loved and who were worthy of the same respect and dignity as anyone else. Damien’s life of sacrifice turned attention to caring for these unfortunate men and women all around the world. Father Joseph Damien de Veuster was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009, and the state of Hawaii has honored him with a statue which stands in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building.
This article first appeared in the October 2000 issue of The Word Among Us magazine.