Here I am a priest, dear parents, here I am a missionary in a corrupt, heretical, idolatrous country. How great my obligations are! Ah! do not forget this poor priest running night and day over the volcanoes night and day in search of strayed sheep. Pray night and day for me, I beg You.There are seven habitable islands of Hawai‘i. Moloka‘i had a reservation for lepers. They received their first priest on the 10th of May 1873. He was a 33 year old fleming, neé Joseph De Veuster, the seventh of eight children of peasants from Tremeloo, Belgium. He had followed his brother, Auguste, into the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. In 1860, he became Brother Damianus. Damien was devoted to St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries. On Saint Joseph’s Day 1864 he arrived in Honolulu. Two days later he was ordained.
There were 816 souls in that colony, a fourth being of the Faith. Their health and poverty was fetid, rotting and truly wretched. Their was a harsh and depraved anarchy in the community. They were truly abandoned. Damien became a carpenter and physician and a true priest of God. He founded the Parish of Saint Philomena in Kalaupapa.
The lepers became Catholic. Father Damien began a perpetual Eucharistic adoration. Christ was to be with them always. At one time, catholicism was banned and catholics jailed in the Sandwich Islands. The government, the powered and moneyed elite were protestants, calvinists and some mormon. They held Damien, “the papist”, with enmity. Damien had troubles with his fellow priests, also. He suffered melancholy.
Walter Murray Gibson, a scoundrel of wonderful talent and remarkable exploits, was governmental minister of near everything and owner of The Honolulu Advertiser, and founder of The Nuhou . He had been a gun runner and world adventurer, a very high ranking mormon friend of Brigham Young and no friend to Damien in his governmental rôles . Damien was the only friend of these people for a long while.
After many years Damien contracted leprosy himself. His congregation realised this, when, one day, he began with the words, “We lepers”. He needed help in his mission and controversy made the world’s press. Ira Barnes Dutton (Brother Joseph) in 1886, Fr. Louis Lambert Conrardy, James Sinnett, and Franciscan sisters with Mother Marianne Cope* came in 1888. The bishop warmed and sent Damien more help, the mission to the lepers continued.
At the beginning of spring 1889 he was bedridden. April 15 he died, now Father Damien Day is celebrated in the islands on April 15. On June 4, 1995 he was beatified. A poll in Belgium, in 2005, voted him history’s greatest belgian. He is expected to be canonised this year.
When he died, it was news. Many recognised a saint and wanted to help Molokai. But there were those who hated him. A calvinist, Reverend C. M. Hyde† libeled him with calumny, to a Reverend Gage:
Dear Brother,— In answer to your inquiries about Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, head-strong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.This was published in the Sydney Presbyterian and read by Robert Louis Stevenson who then visited Molokai, and famously, and successfully rebutted his co-religionist, with an open and lengthy letter, which began in part:
To do this properly, I must begin by quoting you at large: I shall then proceed to criticise your utterance from several points of view, divine and human, in the course of which I shall attempt to draw again, and with more specification, the character of the dead saint whom it has pleased you to vilify: so much being done, I shall say farewell to you for ever.In the eighth grade, Sister Mary Harold showed our class a short film on Damien. I think it was, The Great Heart (1938). The year before, John Farrow wrote a biography, Damien the Leper. I was surprised he was not declared a saint then. He was a missionary to the outcast. The medical community has renamed the feared malady, Hansen’s disease. As historically, and biblically, feared the disease was, those who suffered from it, suffered psychologically, socially and emotionally to a great degree. The leper saint is being called to intercede with a disease of our generation, hiv/aids.
Father of mercy, in Blessed Damien you have given a shining witness of love for the poorest and most abandoned. Grant that, by his intercession, as faithful witness of the heart of your Son Jesus, we too may be servants of the most needy and rejected.We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever. Amen.______________
*Blessed Marianne of Moloka‘i as of 14 May 2005.
† Charles McEwan Hyde, not the Edward Hyde in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 1886.
POSTSCRIPTUM: On 16 February 2009 the Vatican announced that on 21 February 2009 Damien will be recognised to be canonised. He will be formally, infallibly recognised as a saint, one who shares the beatific vision of God on 11 October with pomp and ceremony.
postscriptum: Damien was canonised, along with four others, in Rome on 11 October 2009.