Father Damien is the religious name of Joseph de Veuster, ss.cc. He lived from January 3, 1840 to April 15, 1888. He was a Roman Catholic missionary of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who sacrificed his life in service to the lepers of Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai in Hawaii. He is the patron of lepers, outcasts, HIV/AIDS and the State of Hawaii. He is memorialized in bronze in the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall, one of two statues submitted by Hawaii.
Father Damien is the patron of lepers, outcasts, HIV/AIDS and the State of Hawaii
Joseph de Veuster was born to a farming couple in Tremeloo, Belgium. He attended college at Braine-le-Comte then entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, SS.CC. taking the name of Damien in his first vows. He became a Picpus Brother on October 7, 1860.
Mission to Hawaii
On March 19, 1864, Damien arrived in Honolulu in the Kingdom of Hawaii as a missionary. There, Damien was ordained to the priesthood on May 24, 1864 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, a church built by his religious order. He served at several parishes on the island of Oahu before becoming aware that the Kingdom was facing a public health crisis and his help would be needed.
Hawaiians became afflicted by diseases brought to the islands by foreigners settling in the Kingdom. Thousands would die of influenza, syphilis and other ailments that never before affected Hawaiians. This included the plight of leprosy, today called Hansen's Disease. Fearful of its spread, King Kamehameha IV segregated the lepers of his Kingdom and moved them to a settlement colony on the island of Molokai. The Board of Health provided them with supplies and food but did not yet have the resources to provide proper healthcare. Damien believed that they should at least have a priest to tend to their spiritual needs. A surefire death sentence, Damien asked his bishop to be sent to Molokai.
Colony of Death
On May 10, 1873, Damien arrived at the secluded settlement at Kalaupapa. Bishop Louis Maigret, ss.cc. presented Damien to the colonists 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." The settlement was surrounded by an impregnable mountain ridge. There were 600 lepers living at Kalaupapa. His first action was to build a church and establish the Parish of St. Philomena so the lepers may worship.
Damien found himself to be the only one who could provide comfort for the people of Kalaupapa. He was not only their priest, but had to be their doctor, too. He dressed their ulcers, helped build their homes and beds. He even built their coffins and dug their graves. For years he would do this and grew to love his parishioners.
Damien was sent to a morally deprived, lawless colony of death where people were forced to fight each other to survive. The Kingdom didn't plan the settlement to be in such disarray but the Kingdom's neglect in providing needed resources and medical help created the chaos. Damien changed that. The colony of death became a colony of life as grass shacks became painted houses, organized farms and taught construction. He restored faith in his battered and neglected flock. He showed them that despite what the outside world told them, they were worth his own life. He showed them that what was left of their lives was precious. He restored personal pride and dignity.
Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua
King David Kalakaua awarded Damien bestowing on him the honor of being Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua. When Princess Lydia Liliuokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she became heartbroken having met with her subjects afflicted with leprosy. So saddened, she could not read her speech. She admired Damien greatly for the sacrifices he made. The Princess shared with the world what she had seen in Damien and Damien's name was spread across the United States of America and Europe. American Protestants began raising huge amounts of money for Damien. Anglicans sent Damien food, medicine, clothing and plenty of much needed supplies. Damien never wore the medal given to him but was glad it brought the world's attention to Kalaupapa.
On a cold December evening in 1884, Damien soaked his feet in boiling water. Damien noticed he could not feel any sensation of the hot water. He tried pinching himself but could not feel pain. Damien diagnosed himself as having contracted leprosy. Knowing death was coming, Damien worked more vigorously to build as many homes he could and organize the programs he created. He wanted to make sure his parishioners could tend to themselves after he died.
With the flurry of activity, four strangers came to Kalaupapa in search of Damien. They were there to help Damien so that he would finally be able to rest. The strangers included a Belgian priest, Father Louis-Lambert Conrardy. A Franciscan, Mother Marianne Kopp, Superior of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse in New York, would later establish a network of nuns to serve in Kalaupapa. Joseph Dutton was a Civil War soldier who left a broken marriage because of his alcoholism. He ended up staying in Kalaupapa, ministering to the Baldwin Home for Boys until he fell ill and died in 1931. James Sinnett was a nurse from Chicago Mercy Hospital. Damien called him "Brother James." Sinnett nursed Damien in the last phase of the disease. He even closed Damien's eyes when he died. Sinnett left Kalaupapa upon Damien's death and was not heard of afterward. He remains a mystery today.
Path to Sainthood
On June 4, 1995, Pope John Paul II beatified Joseph de Veuster, ss.cc. and was given the title, Blessed Damien of Molokai. On December 20, 1999, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, confirmed the November 1999 decision of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to place Blessed Damien of Molokai on the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar with the rank of optional memorial. His official Feast Day is on May 10 of each year.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu is currently awaiting findings by the Roman Curia as to the authenticity of several miracles attributed to Blessed Damien of Molokai. Upon confirmation that those miracles are genuine, Blessed Damien of Molokai could then be canonized and receive the title of Saint Damien of Molokai.