SAINT DAMIEN (DE VEUSTER) OF MOLOKA’I (1840-1889), missionary priest – Patron saint of lepers
Today, the Church honors Saint Damien of Moloka’i, a servant of God who set personal well-being and safety aside, in order to attend to the spiritual needs of those whom society had abandoned.
Joseph de Veuster was born in Tremelo, Belgium, in 1840, a time when few people in Europe had any firsthand knowledge of leprosy (Hansen’s disease). By the time he died at the age of forty-nine, people all over the world would learn about this disease because of him. They knew that human compassion could soften the ravages of this disfiguring and, what was believed to be at the time, an incurable and fatal disease.
When Joseph, a Belgian peasant, was nineteen years old, he began his novitiate with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and took the name Damien. He would pray every day before a picture of Saint Francis Xavier, patron saint of missionaries, to be sent on a religious mission.
In 1863, Damien’s brother, who was to leave for a mission in the Hawaiian Islands, became ill. Since preparations for the voyage had already been made, Damien obtained permission from the Superior General of his Order to take his brother’s place. He arrived in Honolulu on March 19, 1864, and was ordained to the priesthood on May 21st of the following year.
During that period of time, the Hawaiian Government decided on the harsh measure of quarantine aimed at preventing the spread of leprosy within its population, which involved the deportation of all those infected with leprosy to the neighboring island of Moloka’i.
The Catholic mission on the islands was concerned about the abandoned lepers, and the local bishop felt certain they would need priests. He did not want to send anyone “in the name of obedience,” because he was aware such an assignment was a potential death sentence. Of the four priests who volunteered, Damien was the first to leave on the 10th of May, 1873 for Kalaupapa, a small community on the island of Moloka’i.
When Father Damien arrived, he found that there was no civil society established among the despairing and hopeless lepers, who had been banished and felt forgotten by the world. He immediately set about putting into place social order amongst the sick and establishing a rule of law. He also renovated a small, rundown wooden chapel and began celebrating Mass; and, in time, the community of lepers on the island began developing a community ethic of civility and mutual respect.
At his own request and that of the lepers, he remained on Moloka’i, pastorally serving the needs of those afflicted with the disease for sixteen years. Father Damien eventually contracted leprosy himself, yet continued to serve the needs of his parishioners for four more years, until finally succumbing to its effects and dying on April 15, 1889 at the age of forty-nine.
Father Damien (de Veuster) of Moloka’i was beatified in 1995 by Pope St. John Paul II, and canonized a saint on October 11, 2009 by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
We commemorate his feastday on May 10.
(From catholicnewsagency.com, saints.sqpn.com, americancatholic.org, catholicculture.org, newadvent.org and vatican.va/news_services)
(The following prayer is from the Roman Breviary from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary for Saint Damien de Veuster)
“Father of Mercy, in Saint Damien You have given us a shining witness of love for the poorest and most abandoned. Grant that, by his intercession, as faithful witnesses of the Heart of Your Son Jesus, we too may be servants of the most needy and rejected.
“We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”