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St. Damien Of Molokai… Doing God’s Will Doesn’t Mean He Just Hands It To You

March 14, 2023 Featured Today No Comments

By DEXTER DUGGAN

PHOENIX — Feeling impelled to follow a certain path in life led a Flemish youth from Belgium, where his father had planned for him to enter the business world after college, to “the far side of the world” as a Catholic priest, where he died from the leprosy of the Hawaiian natives he had traveled to serve, fully aware of the dangers of the disease, a speaker here said.
The young man became Fr. Damien of Molokai, canonized in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI and known throughout the world for his dedicated service as a missionary in the nineteenth century.
Although God has a plan for everyone, Fr. Damien’s life is a reminder that people may have to insist on what they need to do. It isn’t necessarily just dropped in their laps.
His life was the topic of a talk by Rae-Mi LeRoy on March 4 for the Institute of Catholic Theology (ICT), an evangelization program here based at St. Thomas the Apostle Church.
LeRoy, who formerly worked with the entertainment industry in Hollywood, moved to Arizona in 2015 and is director of Digital Media Evangelization at St. John Vianney Church, in the red-rocks country of Sedona, about a two-hour drive north of Phoenix.
Born Jozef De Veuster, Fr. Damien was pulled out of school at age 13 to work on a farm, not an unusual situation, LeRoy said, before he went back to school at age 18.
He wrote a letter to his parents saying not to stop him from pursuing his dream of a religious vocation, she said, which expressed his view that this life’s purpose is to attain the next life.
“My vocation has nothing in it to make you sad,” LeRoy said he wrote to them.
Making a brief introductory comment before LeRoy’s talk, the pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle, Fr. Steve Kunkel, said Fr. Damien named his church in Hawaii for St. Philomena because she had so many miracles attributed to her.
St. Philomena is described as a virgin martyr early in the fourth century, although not much is known of her.
LeRoy said she became interested in Fr. Damien when she saw a movie about him. He showed his “unrelenting love to the outcasts.”
Less than two centuries ago, the world was very different. Although the Industrial Revolution already had changed life in many ways, travel and communication were among aspects that we still would consider not very advanced.
As a comparison in time with life in the United States, the future saint sailed to Hawaii when Abraham Lincoln was president as the Civil War was raging.
The rest of this article is the description of his life that LeRoy provided.
Born in 1840, he took his religious habit in February 1859 as Brother Damien. “His desire was to go to the far side of the world,” and he prayed to the famous missionary Fr. Francis Xavier, SJ, for his intercession.
At age 23 the future saint traveled by ship for 148 days from Bremerhaven, Germany, to Honolulu, from October 1863 to March 1864, the year he was ordained a priest.
He found the land where he was to serve to have 60,000 people spread over eight major islands, with one-third of the population already Catholic. He felt great joy to be there.
He left Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, in June of 1864 to work in Puna, on the east side of the big island of Hawaii. In early 1865 he went to that island’s Kohala district which for him meant covering 1,000 square miles.
Asked where he lived, he pointed to his saddle and said, “This is my home.”
In 1866 a quarantined area was established on Molokai for people with leprosy, an incurable disease then, “and incredibly contagious.” People suffering this illness who were sent there knew they would die there. Six hundred people were in the colony when Damien arrived.
“He knew what he was getting into.”
A Mormon elder and a Protestant minister already were working there.
Fr. Damien’s bishop clearly intended that four priests would alternate serving there, of which Fr. Damien was the first, but Fr. Damien intended to stay. At his first address to the sufferers, he united himself to them by saying “we lepers.”
Due to limits to access for people, a confessor couldn’t come to Fr. Damien, but the missionary went out on a boat that approached a ship with a confessor on board and shouted his confession in French.
He built a 16-by-16-foot shelter for himself and set out to improve the sufferers’ lives. Because of the repellent smell of the leprosy, he took to smoking strong tobacco, which did help.
“From morning to night, I am amidst heartbreaking physical and moral misery,” he said.
He asked for help because the work burdens left him feeling like “a lamp with no more oil.” However, Fr. Damien couldn’t work well with the first priest sent to help, nor with a second priest.
He was able to write in five languages, Flemish, Latin, English, Hawaiian, and French. Fr. Damien was used to doing things his way and was a vigorous, demanding man. Another priest said Fr. Damien was a good man but “excessively devoted to the lepers.”
He knew he never again would see his own family on Earth.
Between 1884 and 1885 it became clear that he had leprosy. Now it wasn’t a matter of whether he’d see his own family, but of losing contact with anyone beyond the colony. “He was told he was not to think of contact with the outside world again.”
His work already had become known far beyond Hawaii. Now the word spread of his leprosy. That knowledge killed his mother in her 80s back home.
Fr. Damien immediately reacted well to a layman who arrived to help, two years younger than himself. This was Ira Barnes Dutton, who had fought in the Civil War, been in a marriage that broke up, then lived in a monastery but thought that wasn’t right for him.
Someone asked the priest if he wanted to be cured of the leprosy, and he replied that not if the price was leaving Molokai, and, besides, this shortened his time until Heaven.
He seemed not to stop until he would fall over, and indeed this was the case when he became bedridden at the end of March 1889, when he collapsed after a Mass.
Fr. Damien died on Monday, April 15, 1889, four days before Good Friday. He had said there were two figures standing by him, one at the head of his bed and one at the foot, but no one else could see them.
Shortly after his death a Protestant clergyman wrote a letter criticizing Fr. Damien, but the author Robert Louis Stevenson, upon seeing it, wrote a vigorous 6,000-word defense of the priest.
Fr. Damien was an ordinary man with flaws who became a saint. He was chosen by the state of Hawaii as one of its two significant people to be represented in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Answering a question after her talk, LeRoy said that many saints in their own time were seen as troublesome, including St. Pio.

  • + + Observation of the reporter: In the world around us it seems there are many people devoted to causes that call on other people to make sacrifices while they themselves continue to feel superior but also aggrieved. Perhaps some of these prophets of calamity would feel better if they took up some of the burdens they prefer to impose on others?
    St. Damien of Molokai could have chosen to have a well-provided secular life in Belgium, writing criticisms of what offended him, then dying after accomplishing little. Or he could have chosen the course he did in heroic service and with no expectation of celebrity, but attaining sanctity and leaving a legacy never to be matched by self-important figures.
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