2009 - Vol. 34
of the Lepers
Life of Father Damien de Veuster
by Jeanne Kun
On May 11, 1873, the steamer Kilauea deposited thirty-three-year-old
Father Joseph Damien de Veuster at 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 missionary Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of
Jesus and Mary on his nineteenth birthday. On October 7, 1860, as he made
his vows, the young 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 – by now Father Pamphile – 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
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.
Damien finished his studies for the priesthood and was ordained shortly
after he arrived in Honolulu, and then 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
translated his name into their lilting language and fondly called him Makna
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”
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 quaranteened.
The site of the island’s leprosarium, the settlement of 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: as 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
In April 1873, newspaper editorials in Honolulu decried the situation
at the settlement. Around this time, the Catholics at the Kalawao settlement
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
Apostle of charity
A man of enormous activity, Damien vigorously tackled every need –
spiritual and physical – that he saw. He cleaned wounds, bandaged ulcers,
even amputated gangrenous limbs. When a hurricane destroyed the exiles’
shabby huts, Damien petitioned Hawaii’s 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 into 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 sixteen hundred 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 Father 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 religious 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. During 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
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,
"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.”
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 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.
Jeanne Kun is a noted author
and a senior womens' leader in the Word
of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
This article is excerpted
from the book, In
the Land I Have Shown You, The Word Among Us Press, © 2002. All
rights reserved. Used with permission. The book can be ordered from WAU