Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Man of True Hope
Saint Damien - Apostle to Lepers

Father Damien was born on earth January 3, 1840, and born into heaven on April 15, 1889. He was a Belgian Catholic missionary of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and he is revered primarily by Hawaii residents and Christians for having dedicated his life in service to the lepers of Molokai in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Father Damien, born Joseph de Veuster, is the spiritual patron of people with leprosy, outcasts, and those with HIV/AIDS, and of the State of Hawaii.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II beatified him and bestowed the official title of Blessed Damien of Molokai. Today, October 11, 2009, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. The Feast Day for Saint Damien is May 10, the day he arrived at Molokai.

Joseph de Veuster was born in Tremelo, Belgium. His father, a small farmer, sent him to a college at Braine-le-Comte, to prepare for a commercial profession, but Joseph decided to enter the novitiate of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary at Louvain in 1860, taking the name of Damien. Three years later, though still in minor orders, he was sent to the mission of the Hawaiian Islands. He arrived on March 19, 1864, and was ordained as a priest in Honolulu two months later, on May 24. Father Damien was later given charge of various districts on the island of Hawaii, helping to build several chapels.

On the island of Molokai, there was a secluded settlement at Kalaupapa, where the government had banished all persons afflicted with leprosy. The Royal Board of Health provided them with a few supplies and food, but little else. Bishop Louis Maigret thought that these wretched people needed a priest to minister to their needs. Because he knew that it meant almost certain death, Bishop Maigret did not want to send anyone "in the name of obedience," so he asked for volunteers. Understanding that they would probably be sacrificing their lives, Damien and three others volunteered to go to Molokai. Damien was the first to go and, at his own request and that of the "lepers," he remained permanently on Molokai.

Father Damien arrived at the settlement on May 10, 1873, as its resident priest. There were then more than 600 inhabitants. He was presented by the bishop as "one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you." A few months after he arrived, Damien wrote to his brother, "I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ."

While Hawaii has been described as a beautiful paradise, the leper colony at Kalaupapa on Molokai was a hell of despair. It has been called a morally deprived, lawless "colony of death" where people were forced to fight each other to survive.

For a long time, Father Damien was the only one to bring them the relief they so greatly needed. He was not only a priest to them, he took on the role of doctor and builder as well. He provided medical treatment, built homes, and dug graves. Working farms were organized, schools were erected, and for the first time, basic laws were enforced. But more than material relief, Father Damien brought hope.

He became a source of consolation and encouragement for the lepers, their pastor, the doctor of their souls and of their bodies, without any distinction of race or religion. He gave a voice to the voiceless, he built a community where the joy of being together and openness to the love of God gave people new reasons for living.

In 1885, after twelve years of service to the afflicted, Father Damien discovered symptoms of having contracted the disease himself when he lost sensation in one of his feet. However, he did not despair; rather, now he was able to identify completely with the people of Molokai. "We lepers," he said to them with love.

Because of his diligent efforts, others began to come to Molokai to give aid to the inhabitants. A Belgian priest, Louis Lambert Conrardy, came and took up pastoral duties. Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, Superior of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, arrived with her sisters and organized a working hospital and homes for boys and girls. Like Damien, Blessed Marianne loved those suffering from leprosy more than she loved her very self. Joseph Dutton, an American Civil War soldier seeking a life of penance, arrived unannounced and took up many of the day-to-day activities of washing sores, dealing with ulcers, doing rudimentary surgery, building, and writing to presidents, princes and medical people for help. James Sinnett was a nurse from Chicago who attended the patients, including nursing Father Damien in the last phases of the disease.

Father Damien died in 1889 at the age of 49. He was originally buried on Molokai, but in 1936, at the request of the Belgian government, his body was moved to Belguim, and he is now buried in Leuven, a city close to the village where he was born. However, upon his beatification, Damien's right hand was returned to Molokai to a joyful reception.

Father Damien would be the first to say that his heroic service and witness was not due to his own personal strength. Rather, he got his strength from God, "It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength we need in our isolation."

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