Joseph de Veuster was born on January 3, 1840 in Tremelo, a small town in Belgium. The seventh of Frans and Anne Catherine de Veuster’s eight children, strong and energetic Joseph was expected to join his father’s farming business. However, Joseph followed in the footsteps of three of his older siblings. Two of his older sister’s became Ursuline nuns and his older brother, taking the name Pamphile, joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and the Perpetual Devotion of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Joseph joined the same order at age eighteen, taking the name Damien after an ancient physician and martyr.
In 1863, Damien’s brother, Father Pamphile, was supposed to join a mission of nuns and priests to bring the Catholic faith to Hawaii, when he got typhoid fever. Damien, not yet ordained a priest, received permission to go instead. On March 19, 1864, after a five month voyage, Damien and the Sacred Hearts Mission arrived in Honolulu. He spent the next two months finishing his studies and was ordained a priest on May 21, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace. Father Damien and Father Clement Evrad, also newly ordained, were assigned to the Big Island of Hawaii. His first parish was in Puna, but before the year’s end Father Damien switched places with Father Clement and began serving in the more rugged, northern area of Kohala and Hamakua. It was here that Father Damien spent nearly ten years building churches, spreading the Gospel, and Baptizing hundreds.
Sacred Heart Bishop Louis Maigret, concerned for the lepers (those suffering from Hansen’s disease) who were isolated on Molokai, asked for Priests to volunteer to take shifts and serve there. Four priests volunteered and Father Damien was given the first shift. On May 10, 1873, Father Damien wrote to his superior saying that it was “absolutely necessary” for someone to remain permanently at Molokai and that he would be willing to stay. Having been abandoned for nearly a decade, Molokai was in chaos, despair and drunkenness reigning over the people. Father Damien was seen as an instant hero to the outside world, but to the people of Molokai he was so much more. He served as a doctor, carpenter, engineer, farmer, legal advocate, landscaper, plumber, supplies procurer, grave digger, and coffin maker.
Although he was at times physically repulsed by the stench and disfigurement, Father Damien treated his people with compassion and gave them their dignity and respect back. Father Damien built houses, an orphanage, a church, and enlarged the hospital. He visited the sick and every house at least once a week. Ignoring the common practices, Father Damien also ate with his people, invited them into his house, and touched them. Under Father Damien the number of catechumens increased at first by tens and then by hundreds. Every day Molokai had prayer, adoration, Mass, and the rosary.
In 1884, after scalding his feet and feeling no pain, Father Damien knew he had leprosy. Over five years Father Damien suffered from Hansen’ disease. Sixteen years after coming to Hawaii, on April 15, 1889, at the age of forty-nine, Father Damien died. He was buried under the Pandanus tree, next to the Saint Philomena church where he had slept upon first coming to Molokai. It was there that he wished to be buried, but in 1936 the Belgium government exhumed Father Damien’s body and brought him to be re-buried at Saint Joseph chapel in Lourain, Belgium.
Father Damien was announced Venerable by Pope Paul IV in 1977 and was later named Blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1994. On October 11, 2009 Pope Benedict XVI named Father Damien a saint. Saint Damien’s feast day is May 10. Just as Christ calls us to, Saint Damien went forth and cared for the poorest of the poor.
By Hannah Elizabeth
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