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Catholic Heroes… St. Damien Of Molokai

November 30, 2021 saints No Comments


Born the seventh child to Belgian farming parents, young Joseph de Veuster — later St. Damien — was first called to the priesthood after a mission given by the Redemptorists in 1858, when he was 18. Having been told to stop school because he was needed on the home farm, Joseph, like his two older sisters and a brother, likewise wished to enter the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Given his lack of education, he was at first not seen as a choice candidate. But having prayed hard and being assisted in Latin study by his brother, his superiors soon saw his promise.
After a novitiate in Paris, and more studies in Louvain in Belgium, in the end his prayers were answered when he was chosen to become a missionary to Hawaii. In March 1864, he arrived in the country and was ordained two months later. He was 24.
In 1850, the first documented case of leprosy appeared in Hawaii, believed to have been brought there from China. The disease disproportionately affected native Hawaiians. By 1866 poor lepers, greatly feared, by law were being forcibly exiled, even taken from their families, and sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai. They were given no help nor food nor shelter, but expected to forage for themselves, despite their health issues, and conditions were very poor. There was no rule of order, and pressure grew for the government to improve the people’s condition there.
Fr. Damien served nine years in Hawaii before he was given permission to dedicate his ministry to those suffering from leprosy in 1873. He was thirty-three when he went to Molokai.
Such care of lepers, as we know, was not new to Christians. After all, the first hospitals were built by our own ancestors in the Middle Ages. Even in the year AD 1000, according to an article in EWTN’s online library, over 2,000 hospitals already existed to care for lepers. And as to the risk? What Catholic does not look to “the hour of his death”? Damien had been especially trained in this regard: Years before he had embraced death during his final profession, when members of his order were covered with a funeral pall, to remind them that death is the gate to eternal life.
When he arrived in Molokai, there was nothing but a small hut church, named for St. Philomena. But being a skilled carpenter, he enclosed the cemetery with a fence, and in caring for the graves and seeing to funeral Masses, he honored the sacredness of life before and after death. He ministered in many ways to those in need of care due to leprosy. And he taught the locals — who had no real shelter to speak of — to build. In the end there were a couple of orphanages, the people had roofs over their heads, and, at the end of his life, a second chapel. The people’s needs were being met in a way that was unthinkable when he began. What was a temporary priestly assignment in time became permanent. The patients also helped him, likewise, in building a little rectory, so as to have a place to rest his own head outside the church.
Father was human, and he struggled at first to embrace the real difficulties that came with living on the island. Those with the disease suffered from a horrid odor. He learned to smoke to better tolerate the rancid smells. He was shocked by the disintegration of the bodies of those infected, some of whom were infested with maggots.
“Often,” it says in his biography, “I often scarce know how to administer Extreme Unction when both hands and feet are nothing but raw wounds.”
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Fr. Damien has been among the many Catholics attacked by today’s “woke” thinking. Last year Cong. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), betrayed more ignorance in insulting the statue of Fr. Damien in the Capitol Hill complex as a “typical example of white colonialism.” Fr. Damien’s relatives abroad wrote back in astonishment at the utter ignorance of her claims. Indeed, no one of the time did so much for the least privileged of Hawaii.
Despite the many Baptisms and the increasing numbers of lepers that were sent to Molokai, Father buried up to 200 souls a year and ministered to about seven hundred more. Sometimes his greatest trial was being the only priest, and not being able to go to Confession. Initially he was told that once on the island, although he did not have leprosy, he could not go back and forth! That matter was later rectified but, on one occasion, a ship that approached was not allowed to dock and he was not allowed to go on board the ship. His provincial, Fr. Modeste, was on board and knew that Fr. Damien wished to go to Confession dearly, but Modeste was not allowed to disembark. In the end, Fr. Damien decided he would shout out his Confession in French. That’s an act of humility — whether the shipmates understood or not.
Throughout his work, Fr. Damien’s focus was equally divided between the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. He cared as much for the souls of those under his care as their bodies, he loved them as his neighbor. Once he had contracted leprosy, a fate to which he had long been resigned, he wrote to his elderly mother but did not touch on the matter, so as not to distress her. Afflicted as he was, he was still fully dedicated to the work at hand, with no time for self-pity, as the only priest dedicated to the lepers on Molokai:
“Every Sunday I celebrate Mass twice in my double parish; I preach four times, and give Benediction twice. In the evening I am generally very tired. During the week I visit my numerous sick and busy myself with orphans, who are lepers. It is more or less repulsive to nature to be always surrounded by these unfortunate children, but I find consolation in it: for being now a bit of a doctor, like my patron St. Damian, I try, with the help of God, to alleviate their bodily pains, so as to bring them on the way to salvation.”
Father was always at peace spiritually, despite suffering from the disease. When he addressed the congregation as “We lepers,” they knew that in his love, he had taken on their suffering. He passed away on April 15, 1889, having received the Last Sacraments. While the bacterium that causes leprosy had been identified in 1873, not until fifty years after Damien’s death would there be a cure. Thousands today still suffer from the disease throughout the world.
Father did not cure leprosy. But, he said, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”
Fr. Damien was buried, according to his wishes, under the tree where he first slept on his arrival, next to the chapel on Molokai. His body was moved in 1936, back to Belgium, but a relic of his hand remains in Hawaii. Beatified by Pope St. John Paul II, he was canonized in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI. The determining miracle was a healing from terminal cancer of Audrey Toguchi, a retired schoolteacher. When it was suggested that she pray at the original grave of Fr. Damien, she was already pious in nature and prayed often. Why not ask St. Damien to intercede, a priest suggested. She agreed, recalling that her own aunt, uncle, and grandfather had all been banished to Kalaupapa. She did go there and when she returned to Honolulu, the cancer masses had not spread and doctors “unaccountably” found her in remission.
Perhaps the secret is simpler than we realize. Often as he approached death, Fr. Damien told a priest with him, Fr. Wendelin, “Let us say prayers together. How sweet it is to die a child of the Sacred Heart!”

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