2012 - Vol. 56
of Love for the Lepers of Molokai
heroic testimony of Damien de Veuster
by Don Schwager
To touch a leper
Damien de Veuster was very practical with his hands. Give him some
tools and he would build a chair or a table in no time. If something broke,
he would figure out how to fix it. In his youth Damien learned many handiwork
skills from the local blacksmith. Damien’s father wanted him to take over
the running of the family business – a farm which was six miles from the
university town of Leuven, Belgium. Damian’s heart yearned for something
new, exciting, and great. Growing up in a fervent Catholic family, his
mother regularly read to her children the stories of great martyrs, missionaries,
and saints. Damien’s favorite missionary saint was Francis Xavier, who
preached the gospel throughout India and Japan, and died before reaching
China. Damien wanted God to use him to do something great like these heroes
from the past.
When Damien’s older brother, Pamphile, joined a new missionary
order, Damian decided that he would follow him to the missions as well.
Damien didn’t learn easily so he had to study extra hard to qualify for
the rigors of missionary studies, which included mastering new languages.
His dream came true when he volunteered to go to Hawaii – a new mission
field both for Catholic and Protestant missionary societies in the 19th
century. The journey from Europe took 5 months by boat.
view of Kalawao on the island
While Damien was not naturally bright or eloquent in preaching unlike
many of his missionary companions, he, nonetheless, excelled in reaching
out to the people of Hawaii to bring them the good news of Jesus Christ.
This was a daunting task because Hawaii was an isolated collection of several
volcanic islands in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Most of the people
had never heard the gospel before. Travel across the islands was not easy
because the terrain was often rugged with steep cliffs, mountains, ravines,
and sharp volcanic rock, and the tropical climate was very humid.
In letters to his family Damien described some of the challenges he
faced in his missionary work:
cannot travel here either by train or by trap [horse-drawn carriage] and
not always by foot. How do you think we manage these long journeys? With
good mules and excellent horses. I have just bought a superb horse for
100 francs and a mule for 75. There are times when I have to move around
by canoe” (written in May 1865).
had to visit a group of Christians, but how was I to get there? The village
was perhaps the most inaccessible in the whole archipelago. One side was
blocked by the sea, and the other by rock cliffs of extraordinary height.
The track is manageable until one arrives at a beautiful valley; but then
there are at least 12 miles of ravines and rocks to cross. The Protestant
minister needs two hours to climb the first rock cliff! I personally can
do it in forty-five minutes, though I do admit it leaves me out of breath…Moreover
there are at least another ten ravines so wedged in that each one is like
climbing a mountain. The path is impracticable and it is not possible to
travel it with an animal” (March 1865).
Damian outdid many of his missionary companions in physical endurance
and hard work. He traveled almost constantly, and covered more territory
than most of them, visiting thousands of people scattered across the rugged
terrain. He worked with unrelenting dedication among the people, teaching,
preaching, building churches, and serving them in many practical as well
as spiritual ways.
Damien often confided to his older brother Pamphile, who was also a
missionary priest serving in Europe as a school teacher:
I have had to work all week and cook on Sunday, you will excuse me if my
hands are not as clean as yours, which do nothing, I suppose, but turn
the pages of books. Sometimes the plates are not well washed either. But
what matter. Hunger and habit make us eat just the same. For dessert, we
smoke a pipe. That finished, quickly back on the horse to another church!
I often say two masses, and so I have to delay eating for two or three
hours. The more tired I am on Sunday afternoon, the more happy I am, above
all when a lost sheep comes back to the flock of the Lord. On Sunday afternoons
I hear confessions or give theology lessons in kanaka [a local dialect]”
(letter dated October 23, 1865).
going to tell you now what I do during the week. After mass I often give
a little talk. Then it is breakfast, always with poi [baked, fermented
taro root]; after that (at least for the last seven months) I take off
my cassock and grab the saw. Only with a lot of sweat have I been able
to build some chapels that are decent both inside and outside…Still more
sweat and then comes a terrible hurricane that knocks down…two chapels!
...This year I will be able to dedicate more time to visiting the sick
and to studies, providing that Divine Providence does not send me other
worries” (letter dated October 23, 1865).
what is the missionary life if not a tapestry of pain and misery? One passes
all the time in unrewarding tasks like Martha and very little time at the
feet of the Lord like Mary Magdalene. Happy the missionary who only has
to concern himself with his ministry! We, on the other hand, have to concern
ourselves with the material aspects of our mission stations, something
which can cause us a lot of worry” (letter dated October 24, 1865).
One particular situation in Hawaii broke Damien’s heart. People by the
hundreds were dying of leprosy. As their limbs wasted away they were often
shunned and left untreated by their families and society at large. The
only solution the government could find to stop the spread of the leprosy
epidemic was to forcibly remove everyone who contracted the disease and
then confine them to a remote peninsula where they could not escape. They
were not only cut off from any contact with their families and friends,
but were left defenseless in a situation where lawlessness reigned and
unrestrained abuses became rampant. Many sought escape from their
misery and hopelessness through getting high on opium, alcohol, and endless
orgies. Many children, as well as women, were sexually abused and treated
like slaves. Those too weak to care for themselves, and the dying, were
left alone to fend for themselves.
In August of 1873 Damien confided to his brother how he would respond
to the plight of lepers confined to Molokai:
the spring of last year our new Government, taking into consideration public
health, wanted to rigorously purge all the islands of this terrible disease.
By order of the Health Board, all the lepers that they were able to round
up were sent to the leprosy settlement of Molokai, which was like a state
prison. Some of my beloved lepers from Kohala also went. I attribute an
unequivocal presentiment – that I would soon be united to them – to none
other than the voice of God.”
Fr. Damien arrives at Molokai
- painting by Herb Kawainui Kane
To isolate or
Damien was 33 years old when he volunteered in 1873 to move to the
leper colony of Kalawao on the island of Molokai. He knew that this would
be his life mission. There was no turning back for him. He expected the
worst, but the dreadful condition of the 700 lepers at the Kalawao
settlement shocked him. Damien recorded the conditions he saw in some memoirs
he wrote to the Hawaiian Board of Health:
their small shelters, covering them with sugar cane and ki leaves, or at
best with pili grass…Under such primitive roofs these wretches, banished
from society, live together, without any distinction being made regarding
age or gender, and without anyone being classified according to whether
their illness is advance or in its early stages, and all of them, more
or less, unknown to each other. They pass all their time playing cards,
drinking some kind of rice beer and giving themselves over to various excesses…In
this place there is no law!”
that time, the development of the illness was horrible and the number of
deaths quite considerable. The miserable condition of the lepers was so
terrible that the colony well deserved the name given to it: ‘a living
cemetery’” (letter dated November 25, 1873).
Damien’s superiors had given him strict advice: “Do not touch them.
Do not allow them to touch you. Do not eat with them.” At the time it was
seen as the right hygienic thing to do, but Father Damian knew that would
be impossible. How could he not bless the dying, embrace the sick, bandage
the wounded, and console the grieving? After all, that is what Jesus did.
Jesus was physically present to those in need. He came to their homes,
sat and ate with them, listened to their needs and concerns, and prayed
with them as well. He blessed, touched, embraced, healed, and consoled
those who were troubled in mind, body, and soul. Even lepers approached
Jesus with confident trust that he would receive them and show them mercy.
When Damien arrived at Kalawao on the island of Molokai there were around
700 people suffering from leprosy in the settlement – Catholics, Protestants,
and non-believers. Damien considered all of them as his “children.”
for me, I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all for Christ. Because
of this, when I preach I normally say, ‘We lepers’…When I go into a hut,
I always begin by offering to hear their confession. Those who refuse this
spiritual help are not deprived of corporal assistance, which is given
to all without distinction. Consequently, everyone, with the exception
of a few obstinate heretics, look on me as a father” (letter dated November
Damien made it a habit to personally visit ever leper and to inquire
of their needs. He not only made them his friends, he ate with them from
the same pot. He even shared his own pipe with them. He nursed the sick,
cleansed and bandaged their wounds, and prayed with them as well. He incessantly
wrote letters demanding that the best medicines and supplies be sent right
away for the care of his lepers.
the week I visit my numerous sick and busy myself with orphans, who are
all lepers. At times it can be quite unpleasant to be always surrounded
by these unfortunate children, but I find consolation in it. They learn
their catechism well, and are present daily at morning mass and the evening
rosary. As I am now a bit of a doctor like my patron saint, Damien, I try,
with God’s help, to alleviate their terrible suffering and in this way
lead them in the way of salvation” (letter dated November 25, 1885).
Commemorative stamp -
Fr. Damien reading the Bible
watercolor by the English
painter Edward Clifford, 1887
In December of 1887 Damien wrote to his Anglican friend, the English
painter Edward Clifford:
you come I imagine there will be 1500 in our settlement. Each boat brings
dozens of them. I presently have some 60 boys with leprosy, and all live
in the garden of our church. The Health Committee is going to build a large
number of little houses and I myself am at the point of finishing a large
dormitory. I would be very grateful if you would bring me a magic lantern
[a picture box with illuminated images from the Gospels, which Damien used
to give catechism lessons to the boys]” (letter dated December 8, 1887).
Damien’s letters and pleas for material assistance for the lepers began
to circulate in newspapers throughout Europe and the United States, and
eventually worldwide. He became a celebrity, but he didn’t allow it to
go to his head.
the Lord protect me from being carried away by vanity because of certain
good which he deigns to permit through my ministry. I am much talked about
in the newspapers and in the churches, I wish that all the glory be given
to the author and accomplisher of all good. I would desire to remain unknown
in Kalawao settlement, where I am happy and content among many sick children”
(letter dated December 8, 1874).
As donations began to pour in to the leper colony, Damien maintained
a strict account to his superiors for the use of money which was sent his
way. Damien kept a personal promise of simplicity and poverty. In his spiritual
retreat in 1881, Damien recorded three resolutions he made:
order to draw closer to the poverty of Jesus Christ, I will ask only for
that which is strictly necessary and useful, nothing which is superfluous
or enjoyable. I will not complain if at anytime you deny my request. I
will think twice before buying things more or less needed. I will keep
an exact account and I will never use deceit in order to get what I want
from my superiors. I will simply ask, I will not demand.”
Through his patient care and perseverance, Damien turned a disordered,
lawless colony of abandoned souls into a living Christian community of
love where people learned to care for one another. Numerous letters testify
to this remarkable transformation:
some time I have been giving theology courses to the more educated of my
Kanakas. Their zeal has been a great help for the religious formation of
the newly converted. As I have to attend four churches, they do the teaching
when I can’t be there. Often more people come when the priest is not there”
(letter dated July 14, 1872).
have created in Kalawao two associations: one for men and the other for
women. Their main objective is to visit and help the sick. I have great
hope in their zeal and that they will do a great good for the parish. May
God keep my many sick children on the right road” (letter dated April 24,
Damien’s courage, joy, and trust in God’s care did not diminish in the
last years of his life, even after he had contracted leprosy. At the beginning
of 1889 Damien wrote to his friend, Hugh Chapman, an Anglican priest from
London, to thank him for a donation of 1000 pounds:
cannot tell you how happy I was with the visit of our mutual friend, Edward
Clifford, who came to be among the poor exiled lepers. During his stay
he put every effort into bringing into our community of lepers a little
joy with his magic lantern [a picture box with illuminated images from
the Gospels, which Damien used to give catechism lessons to the boys],
his music box, and above all, his so sweet voice. You can see for yourself
in the portraits the destruction the illness has caused to my whole body.
There is, at least, a small light of hope which could restore me, if not
a miracle; but I do not want to tempt the Lord, as I am persuaded that
the will of the Lord is that I die in the same way and of the same sickness
as my afflicted sheep.”
In his last letter to his brother Pamphile, he confided:
brother, I continue happy and content and even though I am very sick, I
only want to fulfill the will of the Good God….I am still able, though
not without some difficulty, to stand every day at the altar where I never
forget any of you: Please, in return, pray and get prayers for me as I
am gently drawn towards my grave. May God strengthen me and give me the
grace of perseverance and a good death” (letter dated February 12, 1889).
On March 28, 1889 Damien became bedridden. Even though he knew that
his death was imminent, he did not stop taking thought for his lepers.
Shortly before his death he dictated a brief letter to Doctor Swift, the
settlement’s resident physician: “Jobo
Puonua has been spitting blood from yesterday morning. Please spare a moment
to go and see him – at the second house after that of Jack Lewis – and
oblige your friend, J. Damien. In the same house you will find the dying
woman I have spoken to you about last night.”
On Monday, April 15, the first day of Holy Week, Damien knew his hour
had come. He said, “The Lord is calling me to celebrate Easter with him.”
He died in the arms of his two missionary companions, Father Conrardy and
Brother Sinnett. Sinnett wrote, “I have never seen a happier death. He
constantly was one with God through his prayer and suffering.”
Father Joseph Damien de Veuster
was beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 4, 1995, and the state of Hawaii
has honored him with a statue which stands in Statuary Hall in the Rotunda
of the United States Capitol building. On October 11, 2009 he was declared
a canonized saint by Pope Benedict XVI.
from the unpublished letters of Fr. Damien, translated by Derek Laverty,
Fergal Maguire, Ulan Naughton, and Mary McCloskey - Congregation of the
Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
Don Schwager is a member of
the Servants of the Word
and author of the Daily Scripture
Readings and Meditations website.