Fr.Damien of Molokai
Apostle to the Lepers, Martyr of Charity


Fr.Damien and some of his congregation
Fr.Damien of Molokai,
Apostle to the Lepers,
Martyr of Charity
seen here with the Kalawao Girls Choir during the 1870s.

Public Domain

Joseph de Veuster, was meant to take charge of the family business. But instead followed his older brother into the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. In 1859 he entered the novitiate in Louvain and took the name of Damien.

In 1863, his brother, was supposed to leave for a mission in the Hawaiian Islands, but became ill. Damien took his place, arriving in Honolulu on March 19, 1864. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 21, 1864 and assigned to the island of Hawaii to begin his pastoral ministry.

Ten years later in a letter to his parents he wrote:-

"I am not ashamed to act as mason or carpenter, when it is for the glory of God. These ten years I have been on the mission I have built a church or chapel every year. The habit I had at home of practising different kinds of work, is of immense use to me here." - Father Damien

Then, the Hawaiian Government decided on a measure aimed at stopping the spread of "leprosy" by deporting those thought to be infected to a peninsula surrounded by the ocean on three sides and by a very high mountain cliff on the other, a place of exile known as Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai. A plea was made by those abandoned for a priest or minister to come to the aid of their spiritual needs. Bishop Louis Maigret, SS.CC., spoke to the priests about the problem. Several volunteered to go for a few months each. They were supposed to give spiritual comfort but not to touch the lepers, so as to protect themselves from infection. Damien was the first to leave on 10 May 1873. There was no doctor, since leprosy had no cure, no nurses, no hospital, no law and order, many had no shelter, they had been dumped there with only a few supplies and left to die. He quickly found he could not show them the love of Christ, at a distance, when faced with such great need, he chose to reach out and touch, choosing to remain permanently, rather than spread the risk to another.

Famous author, Robert Louis Stevenson, had written, 'a human being can have high aspirations and at the same time do horrendous things'. The existence of so much evil and cruelty made Stevenson wonder if God really exists. All of his doubts came together when he visited the leper colony of Molokai. He wrote of it:-

".abominable deformations of our common manhood ... a population as only now and then surrounds us in the horror of a nightmare ... the butt-ends of human beings lying there almost unrecognisable but still breathing, still thinking, still ordeal from which the nerves of a man's spirit shrink, even as his eye quails under the light of the sun...A pitiful place to visit and a hell to dwell in... I am not a man more than usually timid but I never recall the days and nights I spent upon that island promontory (eight days and seven nights) without heartfelt thankfulness that I am somewhere else..." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Stevenson probably would have given in to depression, even despair, if not for Fr Damien. Doubt sometimes tempts us, but there is one thing we cannot doubt: Jesus' compassion – Jesus reached across the divide to touch and heal lepers – Fr. Damien followed the example of his Saviour. despite the risk.

Father Damien has been described as a "martyr of charity", he worked for 11 years in the leper colony before contracting the disease himself. He continued working in spite of it for another 6 years. He gave the people not only faith, but also built them homes He did what he could medically and spiritually. He prayed at the cemetery of the deceased and comforted the dying at their bedsides.

BORN:3 January 1840, Tremelo, Belgium

DIED: 15 April 1889, Kalaupapa, Hawaii, U.S.A.