Before he became a priest, Father Damien's name was Joseph de Veuster. He was born on 3 January 1840 in Tremeloo, Belgium. He attended college at Braine-le-Comte in preparation for a commercial profession as his father had decided that he should take over the family business. However, the young Joseph decided to become a priest instead. He entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Leuven. He was ordained to the priesthood on 21 May 1864 at Honolulu.
During those days, lepers were placed under a government sanctioned medical quarantine in a settlement colony known as Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai. This village is situated in Kalawao County and is isolated from the rest of the island by a steep mountain ridge. The lepers were left there to die. Bishop Maigret knew that these lepers needed a priest to minister to their needs but he realized that this assignment could potentially be a death sentence. He spoke to the priests about it but did not order anyone to go. Four priests volunteered to take turns to visit the lepers. Father Damien was the first to leave on 10 May 1873. After seeing the desperate needs of the 816 lepers, he requested to remain there indefinitely. In a letter to his Provincial Superior he wrote, "I want to sacrifice myself for the poor lepers." Why did he accept his death sentence? Because he believed that he would discover life by accepting death.
Upon his arrival at Molokai, Bishop Maigret presented him to the lepers as "one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you, to live and die with you." He was greeted with the words, "In this land, there is no law." At Molokai, Father Damien had to bear with all the unpleasantness of leprosy. Since there were so many people with suppurating sores, the stench of rotting flesh pervaded the atmosphere. The lepers salivated and coughed constantly. They also spat on the ground. Earlier, Father Damien had been told not to touch the lepers and only to eat food that he prepared himself. However, he found that he couldn't minister to his patients that way. He began sharing their meals. Living in a situation of extreme deprivation both spiritually and materially, Father Damien wrote to his brother, Pamphile, that he was the happiest missionary in the world!
Due to insufficient resources and medical help, the lepers were forced to fight with each other to survive. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "Drunken and lewd conduct prevailed. The easy-going, good-natured people seemed wholly changed." Rape and burglary were common occurrences of the day. The stronger lepers took advantage of the weaker ones. Corpses were thrown in a ravine or buried in shallow graves. The graves were so shallow that wild boars ravaged the corpses.
Father Damien's first course of action was to build a church. He was not only their priest, but their doctor, builder, carpenter and grave digger as well. He cleaned wounds, dressed their ulcers and even amputated gangrenous limbs. He helped the lepers to build their schools, homes, beds, coffins and dug their graves. It is estimated that he built more than 1600 coffins during his years at Molokai. As there was no proper water supply, he and those well enough lepers dug a trench and laid pipes to bring clean water from a lake. Basic laws were enforced under his leadership. For the first time, laughter was heard on this island of death.
In this lawless colony of death that had been abandoned by society and God, Father Damien brought life and restored their faith, pride and dignity irrespective of what the outside world may think of them. He brought a new breath of hope to these people without hope. He transformed the settlement from a place of death to a place of life. As what Father Damien said, "I am bent in devoting my life to the lepers. It is absolutely necessary for a priest to be there." He had truly lived out his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience by identifying himself with the lepers. One evening, in December 1884, Father Damien soaked his feet in boiling water and pinched himself but he could feel no pain. That day, when he delivered his sermon, he greeted the lepers as "My fellow lepers" instead of "My fellow believers". He wasn't afraid of death. According to him, "Our Lord will give me the graces I need to carry my cross and follow him, even to our special Calvary at Kalawao."
Knowing that he had contracted leprosy, he worked even harder to build as many homes as he could and enlarged his orphanages. He had to plan for the future of these lepers as he was worried about what may happen to them after his death. Despite his sickness, he was a happy man. The gift of self was his inspiration and happiness. He said, "I have no illusion as to what is in store for me with this dreaded disease, but if this is what the Good God wants for my sanctification then all I can say is: Thy will be done." In one of his last letters he wrote, "My face and my hands are already decomposing, but the good Lord is calling me to keep Easter with Himself."
On 28 March 1889, Father Damien became helpless and he died at Molokai at 8.00 a.m. on 15 April 1889 aged 49. He was beatified on 4 June 1995 by Pope John Paul II who said of him that, in his life he "showed forth Christ's tenderness and mercy for every human being, revealing the beauty of that person's inner self which no illness, no deformity, no weakness can totally disfigure. He offered the lepers, who were condemned to a slow death his very life ... he became a leper among the lepers; he became a leper for the lepers. He suffered and died like them, believing that he would rise again in Christ, for Christ is Lord!" Pope Benedict XVI will officially declare him a saint on 11 October 2009. Today, Father Damien is the patron of lepers, outcasts, HIV/AIDS and the State of Hawaii.
Father Damien's whole life as a hero of charity had deeply impressed me when I was still a little girl. I first read about him in the Children's Britannica that my parents bought for me. I've also done a lot of research on his life. In fact, I grew up with thoughts of Father Damien deeply engraved in my heart and soul. He has been a great inspiration to me especially during my growing up years. Now that I have started my own blog I would like to take this opportunity to write about my childhood hero and share his life and mission with the whole world. I am so glad that he would soon be honoured as a saint and I would like to thank Pope Benedict XVI for deciding to have Father Damien canonized. 11 October 2009 - this is the day that I have been waiting for since I was a little girl. Father Damien is really a saint. According to Pope Paul VI, "Saints have not only given of themselves, but they have given of themselves in the service of God and their brethren. Father Damien is certainly in that category. He lived his life of love in the most heroic yet unassuming way. He lived for others: those whose needs were the greatest." Those who read about him will be moved by his selfless example. And of course it is not possible not to cry when you read about him. I cried when I first read about him and now I am crying again as I am writing this article.
Not many people could love God and fellow humans as wholeheartedly as Father Damien did. Father Damien is truly one of the greatest heroes who ever lived. Instead of joining the 'Married Priests Now Organization' and pestering the Pope to allow him to get married, he devoted his whole life to the most wretched of his brothers and sisters. As what he wrote to his brother, Pamphile, six months after his arrival at the leper colony, "I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ." He was more concerned with the lepers than with his own well-being. He had consecrated his entire life to lepers. He taught the world how to love by work and example. His life and work thus speak for themselves. His goal was to be another Christ. Like Christ, he gladly accepted his death sentence. He gave himself entirely to God and to men as he traveled the path that Christ had traveled.
The heart of a priest is the reflection of Christ's life. Jesus Christ our Saviour, sanctify thy priests.