António dos Santos
Sometimes forgotten and little talked about, men and women have risked their lives for the sake of others. Today we remember one of these men, the Belgian priest Jozef De Veuster who volunteered to help the lepers on the island of Molokai (Hawaii). Despite the awareness of the danger he was in, the love he had for those souls and seeing their needs, like the sacraments, made him embrace the mission, giving himself to the full until he, too, was consumed by the disease.
Jozef De Veuster, was born at Tremelo, Belgium, on 3 January 1840. He began his novitiate with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (“Picpus Fathers”) at the beginning of 1859 and took the name Damien. Then he was sent to finish his studies at a theological college in Paris – he would pray every day before a picture of St Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, to be sent on a mission.
Damien’s prayers and wishes gradually came to fruition. In 1863, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts decided to look for volunteers for its mission in the islands of Hawaii. Pamphile, one of the six volunteers, fell ill with typhus and was unable to make the trip. Damien wrote to the Superior General in Paris and asked for permission to take his brother’s place and his request was granted. The trip was made by boat from Bremerhaven, Germany, and lasted five months. Damien arrived in Hawaii on March 19th, 1864 and was ordained to the priesthood after two months – at the age of twenty-four – at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu.
The region had received Chinese immigrants and with them leprosy. In 1865, fearing the spread of the disease, the local government decided to isolate those afflicted with the disease on the leper settlement of Kalawao on the island of Molokai.
There, Damien offered himself; he knew that he would stay there forever, for big was his heart and the needs of those souls.
Right after Father Damien arrived at the settlement, a Honolulu newspaper published an article about him. The article stated that Father Damien had volunteered to go to “the island of the doomed,” becoming the first resident pastor there. The impact of the article that spoke of Damien’s Christian heroism was profound and boosted immediate humanitarian aid. A month later the news travelled the world. Damien wasted no time; he wrote numerous letters to the Board of Health in Honolulu asking for adequate food supply and other needed goods.
On the island, the priest started some constructions such as a small church, where he started to celebrate Mass, and a small hospital, where they took care of the most serious patients. However, Damien’s work encompassed something more than the physical improvement of the place, he brought new hope and relief to those who suffered. He was regarded as a father and friend by all lepers.
After serving sixteen years on the island of Molokai and twenty-five years in total as a missionary in the Hawaiian Islands, Father Damien contracted the disease that consumed him. He died peacefully in the arms of Brother James Sinnett and Father Conrardy on April 15, 1889. In 1936, his remains were transferred to Belgium.
The missionary priest was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Brussels (Belgium) on June 4, 1995, and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009, in the presence of the king and Queen of Belgium. His festive day is May 10th.
St. Damien of Molokai, pray for us!