Lifelong CatechesisForming Catholic identity across generations
For a large part of the liturgical year, we devote ourselves to listening to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects unfolded as we seek God's truth and understanding.
Damien, Priest, 1840-1889
Joseph De Veuster was born in Belgium in January 1840. As a boy, Joseph worked on his father’s farm where he learned not only farming skills but carpentry and, from his devout mother, a love for God. All of this knowledge would be put to good use in his later life.
At the age of eighteen, Joseph followed his brother, Pamphile, into the Sacred Heart order. At first thought not to have enough education to study for the priesthood, the young man was designated a brother of the order. At this time he took the name, Damien. So eager was he to become a priest like his brother, Damien persuaded Pamphile to teach him Latin. Noting the rapid progress that he made in his studies of Latin, his superior allowed him to study for the priesthood.
Late in 1863, Pamphile was selected to be among a group of Sacred Heart priests and religious to go to the order’s missions in Hawaii. Weeks before the scheduled sailing, Pamphile came down with typhus. While he would recover, it was not to be before the planned departure date. Damien, not yet ordained, was given permission to sail in the place of his brother. Arriving in Hawaii in the Spring of 1864, Damien, after a short period of study, was ordained a priest and began his missionary work in the islands. Assigned to the big island of Hawaii, Father Damien spent the next nine years covering a remote territory as large as 1,000 square miles.
Leprosy, a debilitating contagious disease which, over many years, decays the flesh and organs of its victims, was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by the first Europeans to visit in the 1840s.With no known cure at the time, those who suffered from this disease were isolated from the rest of the population. In Hawaii, a leper colony was established on the remote island of Molokai for these outcasts.
Recognizing that Catholics in the colony had no priest except for an occasional visitor, the bishop brought the problem to his priests. It was suggested that several priests rotate to the island, each staying a few weeks or months at a time. Fr. Damien volunteered to be the first.
In the Spring of 1873, nine years after his arrival in Hawaii, accompanied by his bishop, Damien arrived at Kalawao, the leper colony on Molokai, with little more than his breviary. When the bishop introduced their new parish priest, the people of Molokai were elated. No priest had ever come to them for more than a few days at a time. Fr. Damien asked his superior how long he could stay at the leper colony. The reply overjoyed him; "You may stay as long as your devotion dictates. ..."
That devotion lasted through the next sixteen years until Fr. Damien himself succumbed to the disease that had killed many thousands of afflicted that he had ministered to. But during those years, much was accomplished. In addition to ministering to the spiritual needs of his parish, he took major steps to improve their quality of life. He had materials brought in and coordinated the construction of homes for the people who had been living on mats under the shelter of trees. The church was enlarged and a choir organized. Farming and raising cattle began. Even athletic events were carried on. Knowledge of Fr. Damien’s work on Molokai spread to Europe and the United States and financial aid arrived to help with his work.
As might be expected, Fr. Damien had his detractors—clergymen who would not go to Molokai themselves, but accused him of ulterior motives. After Damien’s death, one, a Dr. Hyde, wrote a slanderous description of Fr. Damien’s life and works that was published in newspapers. Interestingly, Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was visiting the islands around that time and undertook an investigation into Fr. Damien’s work on Molokai. He identified Dr. Hyde’s attack for what it was.
Damien De Veuster was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995 and he is honored on May 10 by an optional memorial.
Damien’s message today: Leprosy (Hanson’s Disease) is curable and no longer the scourge that it was in the nineteenth century. Today, there are other sufferings that afflict the human race: hostilities, hunger, and, in our country, homelessness to name but a few. Each of us is called upon to do whatever we can do to alleviate the pain of others.