January 2012 - Vol. 56
Servant of Love for the Lepers of Molokai

 The heroic testimony of Damien de Veuster 

edited 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 of Molokai

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: 

“We 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). 

“I 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:

“As 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).

“I’m 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).

“Unfortunately, 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:

“In 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 to touch?
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:

“Many…make 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!” 

“At 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.”

“As 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 25, 1873).

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. 

During 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:

“When 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.

“May 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:

“In 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: 

“For 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).

“We 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, 1887).

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:

“I 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:

“Dear 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.

Quotes 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. 

The Spirit of Father Damien
The Leper Priest - A Saint for our Times
by Jan De Volder
Ignatius Press 2010 San Francisco

Damien had entered a house of death. From the moment he arrived at the leprosy settlement, his faith and his intellect intuitively knew that this was the challenge for which his huge missionary’s heart was longing. Amid these biblical outcasts, who were not only utterly rejected but also radically disfigured, he understood that his presence could make a difference. These poor unfortunates were like sheep in need of a shepherd, children yearning for a father’s love. “They are repugnant to look at, but they also have a soul redeemed at the price of the precious blood of our Divine Savior”, he wrote to his superior. “He too in his divine love consoled lepers. If I cannot heal them, as he could, at least I can offer them comfort.” That was Damien’s choice: to look at the lepers with the loving eyes of Jesus.

That love manifested itself in concrete action, for how could you transmit divine love and salvation if you did not keep before your eyes the concrete needs of those entrusted to you? Did the Apostle James not write: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Damien took care of all the material needs of his people: the food and water supplies, clothing, and housing, for which his carpentry skills came in extremely handy. And, although assisting the dying and burying the dead were his daily tasks, he was also profoundly concerned with the suffering bodies of the sick. For instance, he actively sought out the latest medicines and therapies, which, while not offering a cure, did provide some mitigation of the suffering.

Damien not only cared for the sick; he also gave them back their human dignity and self-respect by pointing out their own responsibility. Despair and self-neglect often occur in patients with terminal diseases—all the more so in exiled leprosy patients. Those suffering with illness also need the medicine of human contact and friendship. Together with his sick companions, Damien entered the battle against meaninglessness, emptiness, and despair. He made sure that they did not waste their lives by surrendering to idleness, drunkenness, and an unrestrained lifestyle. If necessary, he could become very angry. But he also offered them alternatives: he taught them to take better care of themselves and of others. He reconciled them, not only with one another, but with God. Through his pastoral work, his sermons, the liturgies at which he presided, and the sacraments he administered, he taught his flock that each one of them was valuable in the eyes of God. He also taught them that their lives did not come to an end with death, which gave meaning to their lives and deaths.

[excerpt from The Spirit of Father Damien by Jan De Volder, (c) Ignatius Press 2010]

Commemorative stamp  - Fr. Damien's birthplace in Tremeloo, Belgium 

View of the leper settlement at Molokai

Fr. Damien in front of a church he built at Molokai 

Fr. Damien with the girls choir - 1870

Fr. Damien with his orphan boys in Kalawao 

In this photo provided by Hawaii State Archive, Father Damien is seen in this portrait taken two months before his death in 1889 at the leprosy settlement in Kalaupapa, Hawaii

Father Damien de Veuster is pictured in bed shortly before he died in 1889 at the Kalawao settlement on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. The Belgian- born missionary priest contracted Hansen's disease, or leprosy, during his 16-year service to an isolated community of people who had the disease.

Lepers gather at the gravesite of Father Damien 

boys with leprosy - Hawaiian State Archives 1900

Leprosy, caused by the bacillus mycobacterium leprae, brings about a gradual withering away of body parts. There are presently some two million cases of the disease worldwide, primarily in the underdeveloped nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Painting of Father Damien bandaging the wounds of the lepers 

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