Saint Damien - Servant of God,
Servant of Humanity
Ordained in the Cathedral of Our
Lady of Peace on May 21, 1864
Saint Damien de Veuster was born on January 3, 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium.
He was a simple man whose parents were farmers so he had a body that was square,
sturdy, and well-conditioned. Saint Damien was ordained a priest of the
Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary on May 21, 1864 in the
Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace two months after his arrival in Hawai‘i. He
was assigned to the Big Island where powerful bonds of Christian love developed
between him and his people.
In the meantime, the Hawaiian population was being plagued by Hansen's
Disease or leprosy as it was known at that time. Those infected were sent
Settlement on Molokai to remain forever. Saint Damien
requested to serve in Kalawao where the most desperate patients were housed.
He arrived in Kalaupapa on May 10, 1873 and eight days later he wrote to his
provincial asking for permission to stay permanently. His superior
answered him by saying that he had not made up his mind concerning this matter
but "...You may stay as long as your devotion dictates..." They were the
most welcome words that he could have received and he read the letter repeatedly
allowing the words to echo in his mind and in his heart. He longed to
serve among these most pitiful souls, the residents of Kalawao. It turned
out to be a monumental challenge with the possibility that he might someday
contract leprosy, for in order to communicate his love and concern it would
involve direct contact with them.
Saint Damien's work among the patients knew no bounds and his primary
concern was to restore to them a sense of personal dignity and value. He
ministered to the sick by bringing the sacraments to them and by anointing those
who were bedridden. He washed their bodies, bandaged their wounds, tidied
their rooms and made them as comfortable as possible. He encouraged those
who were well to work alongside him by building cottages, coffins, a rectory, an
orphanage for the children and repairing the road. He also taught them to
farm, play musical instruments, and sing. Saint Damien was everywhere in
the settlement and even on "topside" which was part of his parish. He
touched their hearts with his sincere desire to serve them and slowly their
sense of dignity which was all but destroyed by their illness was restored.
His own life was surrounded by horror - the sights of the ravaged bodies and
faces of those in the advanced stages of leprosy and the obnoxious smells were
overpowering but he accepted them. Even before he was diagnosed as having
leprosy he used the term "we lepers" in his sermons for he wished to identify
with them as a means of bringing them to Christ. He refused to let their
lives be swept into despair.
Saint Damien was a man with a quick smile. He was a headstrong
individual but no one could deny that he was a man with a warm and tender heart.
He was quick to forgive and never bore a grudge. His face was full of
kindness and he was totally unselfish in his work. These qualities, as
well as his practical nature and fluent command of the Hawaiian language enabled
him to be held in high esteem by the residents.
As the years progressed, word of Saint Damien's deeds attracted worldwide
attention. Food, medicine, clothing, and funds were sent from many
countries to assist his mission but the need was always there for more.
There were news articles written in many countries, notably Europe and America,
about his compassionate and charitable work.
Saint Damien died on April 15, 1889 at Kalawao, Molokai where he devoted
much of his life in service of God. Shortly after his death, a monument
was erected in Kalaupapa to honor his memory with this inscription.
"Greater love hath no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his
friends." His feast day is celebrated on May 10.