Father Damien of Molokaï
Feastday: May 10
Father Damien or Saint Damien of Molokaï SS.CC. or Saint Damien de Veuster (Dutch: Pater Damiaan or Heilige Damiaan van Molokai, Hawaiian: Pāpā Kamiano o Molokaï ; January 3, 1840 – April 15, 1889), born Jozef De Veuster, was a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium and member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a missionary religious institute. He won recognition for his ministry in the Kingdom of Hawaii to people with leprosy (also known as Hansen's disease), who had been placed under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Molokaï .
After sixteen years caring for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of those in the leper colony, he eventually contracted and died of the disease, resulting in his characterization as a "martyr of charity". He was the tenth person recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church to have lived, worked, and/or died in what is now the United States.
In both the Latin Rite and the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, Damien is venerated as a saint, one who is holy and worthy of public veneration and invocation. In the Anglican communion, as well as other denominations of Christianity, Damien is considered the spiritual patron for leprosy and outcasts. As the patron saint of the Diocese of Honolulu and of Hawaii, Father Damien Day is celebrated statewide on April 15. Upon his beatification by Pope John Paul II in Rome on June 4, 1995, Blessed Damien was granted a memorial feast day, which is celebrated on May 10. Father Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday October 11, 2009. The Catholic Encyclopedia calls him "the Apostle of the Lepers" and elsewhere he is known as the "leper priest".
Damien was born Jozef ("Jef") De Veuster, the seventh child and fourth son of the Flemish corn merchant Joannes Franciscus ("Frans") De Veuster and his wife Anne-Catherine ("Cato") Wouters in the village of Tremelo in Flemish Brabant. He attended college in Braine-le-Comte, then entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Leuven, taking the name of Brother Damianus (Damiaan in Dutch, Damien in French) in his first vows, presumably in reference to the first Saint Damian.
Following in the footsteps of his sisters Eugénie and Pauline (who became nuns) and brother Auguste (Father Pamphile), Damien became a "Picpus" Brother (another name for members of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) on October 7, 1860. His superiors thought that he was not a good candidate for the priesthood because he lacked education. However, he was not considered unintelligent. Because he learned Latin well from his brother, his superiors decided to allow him to become a priest. During his ecclesiastical studies, he would pray every day before a picture of St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, to be sent on a mission. Three years later his prayer was answered when, because of illness, his brother Auguste could not travel to Hawaii as a missionary, so Damien was allowed to take his place.
Mission to Hawaii
On March 19, 1864, Damien landed at Honolulu Harbor on Oahu as a missionary. There, Damien was ordained into the priesthood on May 21, 1864, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, a church that had been founded by his religious institute and today houses the Cathedral of the Bishop of Honolulu. In 1865 he was assigned to the Catholic Mission in North Kohala on the island of Hawaii.
While Father Damien was serving in several parishes on Oʻahu, the Kingdom of Hawaii was facing a public health crisis. Some Native Hawaiians became infected by several diseases brought to the Hawaiian Islands by foreign traders and sailors. Thousands of Hawaiians died of influenza, syphilis, and other ailments that had never been seen there before. One of these other diseases was leprosy (Hansen's disease). At that time, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious, but later it was found that 95% of human beings are immune to it. Leprosy was also thought to be incurable. In 1865, out of fear of its spread, the Hawaiian Legislature passed, and King Kamehameha V approved, the "Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy". This law quarantined the lepers of Hawaii and caused them to be moved to settlement colonies of Kalaupapa and Kalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokaï . Kalawao County, where the villages are located, is divided from the rest of Molokaï by a steep mountain ridge, and even now the only land access to it is by a mule trail. About 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula from 1866 through 1969.
In the beginning, the Royal Board of Health provided the quarantined people with food and other supplies, but it did not have the resources to offer proper health care for them. According to documents of that time, the Kingdom of Hawaii did not plan the settlements to be penal colonies, but the kingdom did not provide enough resources to support them. The kingdom planned for the inhabitants to grow their own crops but, because of the local environment and the effects of leprosy, this was impractical. By 1868, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), "Drunken and lewd conduct prevailed. The easy-going, good-natured people seemed wholly changed."
While Bishop Louis Désiré Maigret, the vicar apostolic of the Honolulu diocese, believed that the lepers at least needed a Catholic priest to assist them, he realized that this assignment could become a death sentence. Hence he did not want to send any one person "in the name of obedience". After much prayer, four priests volunteered to go. The bishop's plan was for the volunteers to take turns assisting the inhabitants. Father Damien was the first priest to volunteer and, on May 10, 1873, he arrived at the secluded settlement at Kalaupapa, where Bishop Maigret presented him to the 816 lepers living there. Damien's first course of action was to build a church and establish the Parish of Saint Philomena. His role was not limited to being a religious priest. He dressed ulcers, built a reservoir, built homes and furniture, made coffins, and dug graves. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao he wrote his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: "I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ."
Father Damien's arrival is seen by some as a turning point for the community. Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks became painted houses, working farms were organized, and schools were established. At his own request and of the lepers, Father Damien remained on Molokaï .
Illness and death
In December 1884 while preparing to bathe, Damien inadvertently put his foot into scalding water, causing his skin to blister. He felt nothing. Damien had contracted leprosy. Despite this discovery, residents say that Damien worked vigorously to build as many homes as he could and planned for the continuation of the programs he created after he was gone.
Doctor Masanao Goto, a Japanese leprologist, came to Honolulu in 1885 and treated Father Damien. It was his theory that leprosy was caused by a diminution of the blood. His treatment consisted of nourishing food, moderate exercise, frequent friction to the benumbed parts, special ointments, and medical baths. The treatments did, indeed, relieve some of the symptoms and were very popular with the Hawaiian patients. Father Damien had faith in the treatments and stated that he wished to be treated by no one but Dr. Goto.
Dr. Goto was one of his best friends and Damien made his last trip to Honolulu on July 10, 1886, to receive treatment from him.
Damien engaged in a flurry of activity in his last years. While continuing his charitable ministrations, he hastened to complete his many building projects, enlarge his orphanages, and organize his work. Help came from four strangers who came to Kalaupapa to help the ailing missionary: a priest, a soldier, a male nurse, and a Religious Sister.
Louis Lambert Conrardy was a Belgian priest. Mother (now also Saint) Marianne Cope had been the head of the Franciscan-run St Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse, New York. Joseph Dutton was an American Civil War soldier who left behind a marriage broken by alcoholism. James Sinnett was a nurse from Chicago. Conrardy took up pastoral duties; Cope organized a working hospital; Dutton attended to the construction and maintenance of the community's buildings; Sinnett nursed Damien in the last phases of the disease. An arm in a sling, a foot in bandages and his leg dragging, Damien knew death was near. He was bedridden on March 23, 1889, and on March 30 he made a general confession.
Father Damien died of leprosy at 8:00 AM on April 15, 1889, at the age of 49. The next day, after Mass by Father Moellers at St. Philomena's, the whole settlement followed the funeral cortège to the cemetery where Damien was laid to rest under the same pandanus tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokaï .
In January 1936, at the request of King Leopold III of Belgium and the Belgian government, Damien's body was returned to his native land. It was brought back aboard the Belgian sailing ship Mercator and now rests in Leuven, a historic university city close to the village where Damien was born. After his beatification in June 1995, the remains of his right hand were returned to Hawaii and re-interred in his original grave on Molokaï.
Order of Kalākaua
King David Kalākaua bestowed on Damien the honor "Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua". When Crown Princess Lydia Liliʻuokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she was reported as having been too distraught and heartbroken to read her speech. The princess shared her experience with the world and publicly acclaimed Damien's efforts. Consequently, Damien's name was spread across the United States and Europe. American Protestants raised large sums of money for the missionary. The Church of England sent food, medicine, clothing, and supplies. It is believed that Damien never wore the medal given to him, although it was placed by his side at his funeral.
1977 Pope Paul VI declared Father Damien to be venerable, the first of three
steps that lead to sainthood. On June 4, 1995, Pope John Paul II beatified him
and gave him his official spiritual title of Blessed. On December 20, 1999,
Jorge Medina Estévez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the
Discipline of the Sacraments, confirmed the November 1999 decision of the United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops to place Blessed Damien on the liturgical
calendar with the rank of optional memorial. Father Damien was canonized on
October 11, 2009, by Pope Benedict XVI. His feast Day is celebrated on May 10.
In Hawaii it is celebrated on the day of his death, April 15.
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