Father Damien

Father Damien was a 19th century Belgian missionary who went to Hawaii to care for lepers when they were banished to the island of Molokai.

Pedro Estaún-May 11, 2023-Reading time: 4 minutes
Father Damien

Father Damien on Molokai

In 2005 the nation of Belgium designated Father Damien as "the greatest Belgian of all time". But who was this man and what were the reasons for his designation with such a high distinction?

Jozef Van Veuster was born in Tremeloo, Belgium, on January 3, 1840, to a peasant family. As a child in school he enjoyed making manual works, houses like those of the missionaries in the jungles; he had an inner desire to go one day to distant lands to go on mission. As a young man he was run over by a chariot and got up without any injuries. The doctor who examined him exclaimed: "This boy has the energy to undertake very great works". As a young man he had to work very hard in the fields to help his parents who were very poor. This gave him great strength and made him practical in many construction, masonry and farming jobs, which would be very useful to him on the distant island where he was later to live.

At the age of 18 he was sent to Brussels to study, and two years later he decided to enter the religious order of the Sacred Hearts in Louvain, adopting the name Damien. The example of St. Francis Xavier awakened in him the missionary spirit. The illness of another religious led him to a distant destination: Hawaii. In 1863 he set sail for his mission and on the voyage he befriended the ship's captain, who told him: "I never confess. I am a bad Catholic, but I tell you that I would confess to you. Damien replied: "I am not a priest yet, but I hope one day, when I am, I will have the pleasure of absolving you of all your sins.

On March 19, 1864, he arrived in Honolulu. There he was ordained a priest shortly thereafter at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace. He served in several parishes on the island of Oahu as the kingdom suffered a health crisis. Native Hawaiians were afflicted by diseases inadvertently carried by European traders. Thousands died from influenza and syphilis, and other diseases that had never before affected Hawaiians. This included the plague of leprosy that threatened to become epidemic. Fearful of the spread of this incurable disease, King Kamehameha IV segregated the lepers from the kingdom by sending them to a remote island, Molokai.

The law established that whoever arrived in that corner of pain and rottenness could not leave so as not to spread the disease. That is why the bishop of Hawaii, although concerned about the souls of the sick, did not decide to send any priest. However, upon learning of Molokai's situation, Damien asked to be sent among those sick. "I know that I am going into perpetual exile, and that sooner or later I will catch leprosy. But no sacrifice is too great if it is made for Christ", he told his bishop. A few days later, on May 10, 1873, he was already on Molokai.

The panorama he found was desolate. The lack of means had made the place an anteroom to hell: there were no laws, no hospitals; the sick agonized in dark and unhealthy caves; they spent their time idle, drinking alcohol and fighting.

Father Damien's arrival was a turning point. The first mission he set himself was to build a church, and then a hospital and several farms (the lepers, with their almost putrid limbs, could barely erect a house on their own). Under his leadership, basic laws were reestablished, houses were painted, work began on the farms, converting some of them into schools, and he established hygiene standards. He also launched an international campaign to raise funds, which began to arrive from all over the world. But what mattered most to him was the soul of the people. their lepers. He catechized them door to door, baptized them, ate with them, cleaned their pustules and greeted them by shaking their hands, so that they would not feel despised. 

In December 1884 Damien dipped his feet in boiling water and felt no pain. Then he understood: he too had been infected. He immediately knelt before a crucifix and wrote: "Lord, for love of You and for the salvation of these children of yours, I accept this terrible reality. The sickness will eat away at me, but I am happy to think that every day that I am sick, I will be closer to You".

Along with international aid, a group of Franciscan sisters arrived and began to share the pastoral mission. On the eve of his death, with his limbs impaired, he wrote to his brother: "I am still the only priest on Molokai. Because I have so much to do, my time is very short; but the joy of heart that the Sacred Hearts lavish on me makes me believe I am the happiest missionary in the world. The sacrifice of my health, which God wanted to accept so that my ministry among the lepers might be a little fruitful, I find it a light and even pleasant good"..

Unable to leave the island, the priest had been unable to go to confession for years. One day, when a ship carrying supplies for the lepers approached, Father Damien got into a boat and almost attached to the ship, he asked a priest who was traveling there to confess him. And from there he made his only and last confession, and received absolution for his faults.

Shortly before Father Damien died, a ship arrived on Molokai. It belonged to the captain who had brought him there when he arrived as a missionary. He remembered that on that trip he had told him that the only priest he would confess to would be him. Now, the captain was coming expressly to confess to Father Damien. From then on, the life of this seafaring man changed, improving remarkably. Also a man who had written slandering the holy priest came to ask his forgiveness and converted to Catholicism.

On April 15, 1889, Father Damien, the volunteer leperHe closed his eyes, now blind, for the last time. Gandhi himself said of him: "The politicized world of our land can have very few heroes who can compare with Father Damien of Molokai. It is important that the sources of such heroism be investigated". In 1994 Pope John Paul II, after having verified several miracles obtained through the intercession of this great missionary, declared him blessed, and patron of those who work among leprosy patients. Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him a saint on April 26, 2009.

The authorPedro Estaún

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