A Belgian man who spent his adult life in the South
Pacific and is memorialized in the U.S. Capitol was declared a saint on
11 October .
He is Damien de Veuster, a sometimes controversial
19th-century figure, who sacrificed his life to minister to lepers on
the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
Fr Damien was born Jozef de Veuster in the Flemish
village of Tremelo on 3 January 1840, one of seven children of a corn
merchant. Still a teenager, Jozef, following the example of his brother
Auguste, joined the novitiate of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts
of Jesus and Mary in Leuven. In 1860, he became a Brother, taking the
He aspired to be a missionary, and his opportunity came
who had taken the religious name Pamphile
was prevented by illness from traveling to Hawaii, and Damien went in
his place. He was ordained a priest in Honolulu in 1864 and was assigned
to the Catholic parish in North Kohala.
Hawaii was then beset by infections, including influenza
and syphilis, introduced by travelers and seamen. The most problematic
ailment, first reported in 1840, was Hansen's Disease
both because it was highly contagious until a treatment was developed in
the 1930s, and because most people contracting it in the 19th century
were assured a progressive, disfiguring degeneration of their skin,
eyes, and limbs.
To prevent the disease from spreading, Hawaiian
authorities in 1866 consigned lepers to an inaccessible colony at
Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai. The colony was bordered on three
sides by the Pacific Ocean and was isolated from the rest of the island
by 1600-foot cliffs.
Whatever resources the government provided for the
lepers were insufficient. Once they were out of sight and no longer a
hazard or an offense to the general population, the residents of the
colony declined into a dysfunctional community marked by poverty,
alcohol abuse, violence, and sexual license.
There the matter rested when, in 1873, Fr Damien, after
overhearing a conversation about the lepers, asked Bishop Louis Maigret,
the first Apostolic Vicar in what was then the Sandwich Islands, for
permission to go to Molokai.
Bishop Maigret not only granted permission, but he
accompanied Fr Damien to Kalauapa where
knowing what was at stake
he introduced the priest to the community of 816 souls 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".
Nor did Fr Damien have any illusions about what his
decision meant. Not long after arriving in Kalaupapa, he wrote to his
brother and colleague: "I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain
all to Jesus Christ".
His ministry, however, was not confined to liturgy,
sacraments, and religious instruction. He restored civility
forcefully when necessary
built and repaired housing for the lepers, lending his own carpentry
skills to the labor of colonists still able to work; improved
agriculture; organized schools; treated the sick with his own hands;
built coffins and dug graves.
At first he found conditions almost overwhelming. "Many
a time", he wrote, "in fulfilling my priestly duties at the lepers'
homes, I have been obliged, not only to close my nostrils, but to remain
outside to breathe fresh air. To counteract the bad smell, I got myself
accustomed to the use of tobacco". In time, however, he put delicacy and
caution aside and ministered directly to people bearing the most
grotesque badges of the cruel disease.
He was criticized at times for being demanding and
headstrong, particularly when he was soliciting assistance for his
lepers. Joseph Dutton, a American Civil War veteran from Stowe, Vermont,
verified this characterization
with an explanation.
Dutton, who joined Damien in 1886 and remained at the
colony for more than 40 years, described the priest as "vehement and
excitable in regard to matters that did not seem to him right, and he
sometimes said and did things that he afterwards regretted... but he had
a true desire to do right, to bring about what he thought best".
After a decade of this work, in December 1884, Fr Damien
realized that he had contracted leprosy.
"Its marks", he wrote to his Bishop, "are seen on my
left cheek and ear, and my eyebrows begin to fall. I shall soon be
completely disfigured. I have no doubt whatever of the nature of my
illness, but I am calm and resigned and very happy in the midst of my
people. The good God knows what is best for my sanctification. I daily
repeat from my heart, Thy will be done".
Still, he labored on, often with help that in his later
years included Fr Louis Conrardy, a Belgian priest, who attended to the
colony's pastoral needs; Mother Marianne Cope, Superior of the
Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, who organized a hospital; and James
Sinnett, a nurse from Chicago who would eventually have Fr Damien as one
of his patients.
Fr Damien, 49, died on 15 April 1889 and was buried
beneath the pandanus tree that had provided his only shelter when he
arrived in the colony.
Mother Marianne carried on Fr Damien's work, remaining
in Kalaupapa, without ever contracting leprosy, until her death in 1918
at the age of 80. She was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
In 1935, Fr Damien's remains were transferred to Belgium
on a U.S. Navy ship. King Leopold III joined about 100,000 people in
receiving the body at Antwerp.
Fr Damien, widely known during his lifetime, has been
memorialized in many places, including a bronze statue, donated by the
State of Hawaii, in the national statuary collection in the U.S. Capitol
building; a statue at the Hawaiian state capitol in Honolulu, and
several clinics devoted to the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients.
And yet, a month after Damien died, Charles M. Hyde, a
Presbyterian minister in Honolulu, wrote a private letter, published
without his permission, challenging the positive image of Damien, who
had received substantial financial support from Protestant groups. Hyde
who once had publicly praised Damien
now dismissed him as "a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted", and
accused him of violating his vow of chastity.
Hyde's letter provoked a furious response from an
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and The
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and himself a Presbyterian.
Stevenson was living in Samoa for health reasons when he
read Hyde's letter. Stevenson had been friendly with Hyde, but had never
But although he was susceptible to infections, he had
traveled to the leper community after Damien's death and remained there
for eight days, asking questions about the priest's ministry.
Based on what he had learned, Stevenson published a very
long letter reprimanding Hyde. Stevenson conceded that Damien may have
been "dirty", "unwise", and "tricky", but added that the priest was also
"superb with generosity, residual candour, and fundamental good humour....
A man with all the grime and paltriness of mankind, but a saint and hero
all the more for that".
"Think of the poor lepers annoyed with this dirty
comrade", he wrote to the minister. "But the clean Dr. Hyde was at his
food in a fine house.... (Y)ou, who were so refined, why were you not
there, to cheer them up with the lights of culture?".
who later regretted the harshness but not the content of his response
predicted that in a hundred years Fr Damien would be proclaimed a saint.
He was correct about Fr Damien if not about the time
frame. In April 2008, the Holy See formally acknowledged two miracles
attributed to Fr Damien's intercession. In June of that year the
Congregation for the Causes of Saints recommended that the Church
acknowledge the sanctity of the priest who, by choosing to minister to
lepers, Stevenson wrote, "shut to with his own hand the door to his own