Today is the birthday (1840) of Father Damien or Saint Damien of Molokai, SS.CC. or Saint Damien De Veuster (Dutch: Pater Damiaan or Heilige Damiaan van Molokai), born Jozef De Veuster, a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium and member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who won recognition for his ministry from 1873 to 1889 in the kingdom of Hawaiʻi to people with leprosy who were required to live under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Molokaʻi on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. During this time, while he acted as a missionary to the people of Hawaii, he also cared for the patients himself and established leadership within the community to build houses, schools, roads, hospitals, and churches. He dressed residents’ ulcers, built a reservoir, made coffins, dug graves, shared pipes, and ate poi with his hands with lepers, providing both medical and emotional support. After 11 years of caring for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of those in the leper colony, Father Damien realized he had also contracted leprosy when he was scalded by hot water and felt no pain. He continued with his work despite the infection but finally succumbed to the disease on 15 April 1889.
I have not thought about Father Damien since my primary school days when his story was recounted in our reader. I don’t remember what year I read the story, but I am guessing that I was 10 or 11 years old, and the story deeply affected me at the time. I have always admired selfless devotion to a cause, especially when it involves risk to one’s own health and safety.
Father Damien was born Jozef (“Jef”) De Veuster, the youngest of seven children and fourth son of the Flemish corn merchant Joannes Franciscus (“Frans”) De Veuster and his wife Anne-Catherine (“Cato”) Wouters in the village of Tremelo in Flemish Brabant in rural Belgium. Growing up on a farm, it was assumed that he would eventually take over its management. Instead, he attended college in Braine-le-Comte, then entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Leuven. He took the name of Brother Damianus (Damiaan in Dutch, Damien in French) in his first vows, presumably in honor of St Damian (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/cosmas-and-damian/ ) who by synchronicity was a doctor who gave his services to minister to the sick.
Following in the footsteps of his older sisters Eugénie and Pauline (who had become nuns) and older brother Auguste (Father Pamphile), Damien became a “Picpus” Brother (another name for members of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) on 7 October 1860. His superiors thought that he was not a good candidate for the priesthood because he lacked education. However, he learned Latin from his brother, so his superiors relented and decided to allow him to become a priest. During his ecclesiastical studies, Damien prayed daily before a picture of St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, to be sent on a mission. Three years later when Damien’s brother Father Pamphile could not travel to Hawaiʻi as a missionary because of illness, Damien was allowed to take his place.
On 9 March 1864, Damien landed at Honolulu Harbor on O’ahu. He was ordained into the priesthood on 21 May 1864, at what is now the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, originally built by his religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Today it serves as the Cathedral of the Bishop of Honolulu. In 1865 Father Damien was assigned to the Catholic Mission in North Kohala on the island of Hawaiʻi. While Father Damien was serving in several parishes on Oʻahu, the kingdom of Hawaiʻi was struggling with a labor shortage and a public health crisis. Many of the native Hawai’ians had high mortality rates due to the spread of such Eurasian infectious diseases as smallpox, cholera, influenza, and whooping cough, brought to the Hawai’ian Islands by foreign traders, sailors, and immigrants. Thousands of Hawaiians died of such diseases, because they had no acquired immunity.
It is believed that Chinese workers carried leprosy (later known as Hansen’s disease) to the islands in the 1830s and 1840s. At that time, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious and incurable. In later years, the medical community determined that roughly 95% of humans are immune to leprosy and, in the 20th century, developed effective treatments. In 1865, out of fear of the spread of leprosy, Hawai’ian king Kamehameha IV and the Hawai’ian Legislature passed the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. This law quarantined the lepers of Hawai’i, requiring the most serious cases to be moved to a settlement colony of Kalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokaʻi. Later the settlement of Kalaupapa was developed. Kalawao County, where the two villages are located, is separated from the rest of Molokaʻi by a steep mountain ridge. Even in the 21st century, the only land access is by a mule trail. From 1866 to 1969, a total of about 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula for medical quarantine.
The Royal Board of Health initially provided the quarantined people with food and other supplies, but it did not have the resources to offer proper health care. The kingdom of Hawaii had planned for the lepers to be able to care for themselves and grow their own crops, but, due to the effects of leprosy and the local environmental conditions of the peninsula, this plan was impractical. According to researcher Pennie Moblo, accounts about the colony from the 19th until well into the 20th century overstated its poor condition, adding to the colonial narrative of Europeans as saviors of the colony and the island. But most of the houses and other buildings were constructed and owned by the residents, even after the change of government and increased investment by the Territory of Hawaiʻi. Meanwhile the narrative of the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911) what that, “Drunken and lewd conduct prevailed. The easy-going, good-natured people seemed wholly changed.” Such accounts fulfil contemporary European ideas about the Hawaiians rather than being an accurate record of conditions.
There is evidence that lay volunteers offered to help on the island, and that the Hawaiians would have preferred a native priest, if one had been available. While Bishop Louis Désiré Maigret, the vicar apostolic of the Honolulu diocese, believed that the lepers needed a Catholic priest to assist them, he realized that this assignment carried a high risk of infection. He did not want to send anyone “in the name of obedience.” After much prayer, four priests volunteered to go, among them Father Damien. The bishop planned for the volunteers to take turns in rotation assisting the inhabitants.
On May 10, 1873, the first volunteer, Father Damien, arrived at the isolated settlement at Kalaupapa, where 816 lepers then lived, and was presented by Bishop Louis Maigret. At his arrival he spoke to the assembled lepers 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.” Damien worked with them to build a church and establish the parish of Saint Philomena. In addition to serving as a priest, he dressed residents’ ulcers, helped build a reservoir, homes and furniture, made coffins, and dug graves. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao, he wrote to his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” It is said that Father Damien told the lepers that despite what the outside world thought of them, they were always precious in the eyes of God. Under the leadership of Father Damien, laws were more strongly enforced, working farms were more organized, and schools along with an education system were established.
Some historians believe that Father Damien was a catalyst for turning the community around. Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks were upgraded and improved as painted houses, working farms were organized, and schools were established. However, many such accounts completely overlook the roles of superintendents who were Hawaiian or part Hawaiian. William P. Ragsdale, who was part Hawaiian, served as an interpreter as well as in other government posts. After finding that he had contracted leprosy, he “gave himself up to the law”, and was appointed to serve as superintendent at Kalaupapa in 1873. He led it until his death in 1877. Father Damien succeeded him briefly as superintendent, but he gave that up after three months in February 1878 in favor of another appointee. His superiors did not want priests serving in government posts.
King David Kalākaua bestowed on Damien the honor of “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua.” When crown princess Lydia Liliʻuokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she was reported as having been too distraught and heartbroken at the sight of the residents to read her speech, but she did subsequently share her experience, lauding Damien’s efforts. Consequently, Damien became internationally known in the United States and Europe. US Protestants raised large sums of money for his work and the Church of England sent food, medicine, clothing, and supplies to the settlement. It is believed that Damien never wore the royal medal, although it was placed by his side at his funeral.
Father Damien worked for 16 years in Hawaii providing comfort for the lepers of Kalaupapa. He prayed at the cemetery of the deceased, and comforted the dying at their bedsides. In December 1884 while preparing to bathe, Damien inadvertently put his foot into scalding water, causing his skin to blister. He felt nothing and realized he had contracted leprosy after 11 years of working in the colony. This was a common way for people to discover that they had been infected with leprosy. Residents said that Damien continued to work vigorously to build as many homes as he could and planned for the future of programs he had established.
In 1885, Masanao Goto, a Japanese leprologist, went to Honolulu and treated Damien. He believed that leprosy was caused by a diminution of the blood. His treatment consisted of nourishing food, moderate exercise, frequent friction to the benumbed parts, special ointments, and medical baths. The treatments did relieve some of the symptoms and were very popular with the Hawai’ian patients. Damien had faith in the treatments and said he wanted to be treated by no one but Goto, who eventually became good friends with Father Damien. Despite the illness slowing down his body, in his last years, Damien engaged in a flurry of activity. He tried to complete and advance as many projects as possible with his time remaining. While continuing to spread the Catholic faith and aid the lepers in their treatments, Damien completed several building projects and improved orphanages. Four volunteers arrived at Kalaupapa to help father Damien as he weakened: a Belgian priest, Louis Lambert Conrardy; a soldier, Joseph Dutton (an American Civil War veteran who left behind a marriage broken by alcoholism); a male nurse, James Sinnett from Chicago; and Mother Marianne Cope, who had been the head of the Franciscan-run St Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, New York. Conrardy took up pastoral duties; Cope organized a working hospital; Dutton attended to the construction and maintenance of the community’s buildings; and Sinnett nursed Damien in the last phases of illness.
With an arm in a sling, a foot in bandages, and his leg dragging, Damien knew death was near. He was bedridden on 23 March 1889, and on 30 March he made a general confession. Damien died of leprosy at 8:00 a.m. on 15 April 1889, aged 49. The next day, after Mass said by Father Moellers at St. Philomena’s, the whole settlement followed the funeral cortège to the cemetery. Damien was laid to rest under the same pandanus tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokaʻi.
In January 1936, at the request of King Leopold III of Belgium and the Belgian government, Damien’s body was returned to his native land in Belgium. It was transported aboard the Belgian ship Mercator. Damien was buried in Leuven, the historic university city close to the village where he was born. After Damien’s beatification in June 1995, the remains of his right hand were returned to Hawaii and re-interred in his original grave on Molokaʻi.
It’s not as hard as you might think to conjure up a dish to celebrate father Damien’s mission that is both Belgian and Hawai’ian. Belgian waffles, due to US influence, have become a standard breakfast feature in Hawai’i and are frequently given a Hawai’ian twist by topping them with coconut and pineapple instead of European fruits and berries. You don’t need much more in the way of a recipe than I have already given you. There’s a recipe and video on making Belgian waffles here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/corpus-christi/ Follow the recipe, but change things up with pineapple and coconut, or whatever tropical fruits appeal. Papaya and/or mango would work just fine.