Father Damien

The Belgian missionary Father Damien (1840-1889) is known for his work among the lepers on Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands.

Father Damien was born Joseph de Veuster in Tremeloo, Belgium, on Jan. 3, 1840, of pious and sturdy Flemish peasant stock. In 1860 he joined his brother in the Contemplative Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. After he experienced a vision of St. Francis Xavier, he was convinced that he had a missionary vocation. Without special preparation he substituted for his brother in a missionary party sailing for Hawaii in 1863. After arrival there he was ordained a priest and was then known as Father Damien.

After regular work in a parish, where he proved to be a true priest-workman, the great challenge of Father Damien's life came. He heard about the island of Molokai with its leprosarium, where incurable lepers were sent. He decided that these people "in darkness" needed a resident priest and volunteered for this service. "I am bent on devoting my life to the lepers," he said.

With his creative imagination the apostle brought new breath of hope to these people without hope. His down-to-earth Christian humanism led him to attempt the remaking of man's life even in the despair of Molokai, and he worked with the lepers to build houses, schools, and meeting places. At the same time he studied new ways of treating lepers. He also offered a context of celebration; he encouraged festivity to provide hope in the experience of decay and frustration. One of Father Damien's key words was participation. He had only intermittent coworkers from outside, and instead he recruited and trained coworkers from outside, and instead he recruited and trained coworkers from the lepers. The "prayer leaders" were the members of his team ministry, and his "model parish" eventually grew to become a sign of hope.

Father Damien received the highest Hawaiian decoration for his pioneering work with lepers, and his work received great publicity. He also earned a number of enemies because of his stubbornness and lack of organizational ability. In spite of many obstacles he persisted in his work even after 1878, when he was sure that he himself had leprosy. In one of his last letters he wrote, "My face and my hands are already decomposing, but the good Lord is calling me to keep Easter with Himself." He died on April 15, 1889. Above his grave on Molokai his friends set a black marble cross with the inscription, "Damien de Veuster, Died a Martyr of Charity." His body was reburied in Louvain, Belgium in 1936.

Further Reading on Father Damien

Of the many biographies of Father Damien, a popular, although eulogistic, one is Omer Englebert, The Hero of Molokai: Father Damien, Apostle of the Lepers (1955). See also John Farrow, Damien the Leper (1937).

Additional Biography Sources

Bunson, Margaret, Father Damien: the man and his era, Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Division, Our Sunday Visitor Inc., 1989.

Lynch, Maud, Father Damien of Molokai, Dublin: Irish Messenger Publications, 1977.

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