St. Damien of Moloka’i was born Joseph de Veuser, in Tremlo, Belgium, in 1840. When he was young, he felt a calling to become a Catholic missionary, and joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, taking the name Damien.
As part of his final vows, Damien’s superiors draped him a cloth that would be used to cover his coffin after his death in a dramatic ceremony. This practice was used to symbolize the solemn commitment made to the religious life and the man’s identification with Christ’s death, but for Damien, it was all the more significant because he gave his life for the lepers of Moloka’i.
Damien’s brother, who was also in his congregation, was supposed to go to Hawaii as a missionary. But after his brother fell illness, Damien took his place, arriving in Honolulu in 1864. He was ordained a priest the same year.
In the ninth year of his priesthood, Father Damien responded to a call from his bishop to serve the leper colony of Moloka’i. Because many Hawaiian natives had no previous exposure to leprosy, and there was no treatment available, Molokai was a quarantine center for the victims, who became disfigured and debilitated as the disease worsened.
Although Father Damien was terrified to contract the disease, he set aside his fears, immersing himself in the common life of the lepers and leaving the outcome up to God.
The Moloka’i lepers saw the love and devotion Fr. Damien had for them, as he performed the traditional works of mercy, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and burying the dead. He made the lepers aware of their worth as children of God, inspiring hope and helping them use their disease as a redemptive path to Heaven.
Fr. Damien’s mission was lonely, as it alienated him from Hawaiian officials and his religious superiors. In December 1884, he discovered that he had no feeling in his feet — an early sign of leprosy. He quickly finished whatever he could before the disease robbed him of his eyesight, speech, and mobility. Fr. Damien’s last days were marked with strife. An American Protestant minister accused him of scandal, stemming from the inaccurate belief that leprosy was a sexually transmitted disease. He also disagreed with his superiors, and felt tormented by the thought that his work had been a failure.
At the end of his life, priests from his congregation came to administer last sacraments, and Fr. Damien died during Holy Week, on April 15, 1889.
St. Damien was beatified in 1995, and canonized in 2009.
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