St. Damien of Molokai
Born: 3 January 1840
Died: 15 April 1889
Canonized: 11 October 2009
Feast: 10 May
Patronage: Those afflicted with leprosy & HIV/AIDS
I’ve always had a love for the theatre. During my pastoral internship I had the opportunity to attend a one-man play featuring the story of then recently canonized St. Damien of Molokai. I took public transit to get all the way to the other end of the city in order to watch this performance. It was spellbinding. The priest who played the part, Fr. Edward Evanko (a Ukrainian Catholic priest), portrayed Fr. Damien masterfully. Being a one-man performance, the entire story is told through a series of flashbacks and expressing out loud his running stream of consciousness. As this play unfolded, it became glaringly obvious that the sanctity of this humble priest would serve as a living presentation of the Gospel; an authentic witness to the self-sacrifice of Christ.
On 3 January 1840, the future St. Damien was welcomed into the world. The name given to him at Baptism was Joseph (Jozef) de Veuster. He was the seventh child and fourth son born to his family. His parents were simple Belgian farmers who raised their large family on modest means. While food and finances may at times have been in short supply, piety and prayer never were in the de Veuster household. Jozef, or ‘Jef’ as his family called him, was inspired to follow three of his older siblings into the religious life. Two of his sisters became missionary nuns and his elder brother, Auguste, had joined the missionary congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Jef followed suit and, under the tutelage of his big brother, entered the same Congregation at the age of twenty on 7 October 1860. He was not regarded as the brightest student but because he managed well in his Latin, he would be admitted to Holy Orders.
He made his profession of vows in 1864 and took the religious name Damien. Every day throughout his formation and preparation for religious life, he prayed through the intercession of St. Francis Xavier that he would be sent on a mission. His prayer was answered soon after he had completed his vows, for his brother had fallen ill and was not able to go on his assigned mission to the Hawaiian islands. Brother Damien would be sent in his place. On 19 March 1864, he landed at the Honolulu Harbour on Oahu Island where he was received by members of his religious institute. Two months later, on 21 May, he was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in the church of Our Lady of Peace, which is today the Cathedral of the Diocese of Honolulu.
Father Damien undertook pastoral duties around the central part of their mission in the months following his ordination and early in 1865 he set off for his first official assignment in the northern reaches of Kohala on the island of Hawaii. He would remain there carrying out his missionary duties among the natives as well as international traders and labourers who had come from around the world to work and do business in the majestic surroundings. With the influx of such a vast presence of foreigners to the island, this unfortunately led to the introduction of infectious diseases which the natives of the islands had no immunities to fight against. Very rapidly, various diseases began to spread among the native population of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Among the worst of these diseases was leprosy.
In response to what appeared to be becoming an epidemic, the governing powers of the Kingdom determined it was necessary to quarantine anyone who became infected with this disease. On the island of Molokai, a settlement was established on the far side of a steep mountain ridge, passable only by a solitary mule trail, where all leprous individuals were required by law to immigrate. The bishop knew that among those poor souls would be many Catholics and many future converts, but he was also troubled by the thought of sending one of his priests into that tragic circumstance under obedience. Therefore, he sought four volunteers whom he could rotate on a circulation through the colony so as not to leave any one priest there too long. The bishop received one volunteer: Fr. Damien.
On 10 May 1873, the faithful missionary arrived in his new world- because the leper colonies of Molokai were utterly distinct from anywhere else Fr. Damien had ever found himself before- and he would find himself nowhere else ever again. As it happened, no other volunteers stepped forward and so the pastoral care of the colonies landed squarely upon his shoulders. What he arrived to was an absolutely impoverished mess of human misery. People in varying stages of physical deterioration, additional elements of illness and to a certain extent, a moral depravity which had begun to set in as people became more despairing and in search of earthly comforts. Fr. Damien would be as a healing balm to the spirits of the people there.
Under his guidance, the people would eventually come together to initiate more structure into their unfortunate circumstances and the faith would continue to blossom. It was not long before their parish of St. Philomena was established and a sacramental and devotional life among his flock began to flourish. All of this was only possible because of the care he took in fostering his own interior life. In his personal notebooks, the following recipe for his spiritual plan of life can be found, “Be severe toward yourself, indulgent toward others. Have scrupulous exactitude for everything regarding God: prayer, meditation, Mass, administration of the Sacraments. Unite your heart with God…. Remember always your three vows, by which you are dead to the things of the world. Remember always that God is eternal and work courageously in order one day to be united with him forever.” (https://www.ewtn.com/saintsHoly/saints/D/stdamienofmolokai.asp)
In 1884, eleven years after his arrival on Molokai, while tending to some of his many laborious chores, he accidentally stepped into a pan of boiling hot water. It was not the searing of his flesh which he found most shocking or painful, though, but the fact that he could not feel that it even happened at all. Fr. Damien had become one with his flock, a leper. Among all of the experiences he had in that mission, the burden of his leprosy would not even rank among the highest of them. He bore his suffering with tremendous grace. In fact, his hope had been fulfilled to become more completely one with his people.
It is hard to imagine that anyone afflicted with leprosy could find anything else in his or her life harder to bear, but such was the case for Fr. Damien. After eleven years of being the solitary priest in the colony, the loneliness of having no one with whom he could share or relate to about priestly ministry cast a deep darkness over him. Perhaps the gravest burden of all was the inaccessibility of the sacrament of reconciliation. Very infrequently the bishop would visit and Fr. Damien could at least then make a confession. However, there was a long stretch once with no visit from another priest or his bishop which resulted in a lengthy period of time without confession. When the bishop arrived by boat after that torturous delay, the captain of the vessel refused to let the bishop off if he wanted to get back on, nor would he allow Fr. Damien to board the ship if even only briefly. Finally, desperate for sacramental absolution, the humble priest rowed a boat out towards the ship where he shouted the confession of his sins in the earshot of many up to the bishop who then granted him absolution. This priest was a noble inspiration to all.
After a prolonged period of intensely suffering the complete deterioration of his body from the outside in, Fr. Damien eventually succumbed to the leprosy. He died on 15 April 1889 which that year happened to fall within Holy Week. When he knew his death was approaching, he remarked to those who were lovingly tending his care that the Lord would grant him to spend Easter in heaven. His renown for heroic sanctity and virtue, especially in the face of such tremendous adversity spread far beyond the recesses of the Hawaiian islands all throughout America and overseas to his homeland and the ears of his religious superiors.
His cause for canonization was opened some years later after the ordinary mandatory waiting period had elapsed and in 1977 Blessed Pope Paul VI declared him venerable. Pope Saint John Paul II beatified him on 4 October 1995 after the approval of the miraculous cure of a French nun who prayed a novena to Venerable Damien. On 11 October 2009, in the presence of representatives of the Belgian monarchy & government; the American and Hawaiian governments; and the superiors of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, Blessed Damien of Molokai was canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI. In his homily, the Holy Father observed, “Not without fear and loathing, Father Damien made the choice to go on the island of Molokai in the service of lepers who were there, abandoned by all. So he exposed himself to the disease of which they suffered. With them he felt at home. The servant of the Word became a suffering servant, leper with the lepers, during the last four years of his life.”
We won’t all be invited to share in the sufferings of Christ’s Cross to the measure which St. Damien did, but the witness of his generosity are everlasting proof that, when borne out of love, suffering can become true joy. St. Damien, pray for us!