Acta Sanctorum: St. Damien of Molokai (May 10)
May 11, 2024
Fr. John Colacino C.PP.S.



May 11
Saint Damien of Molokai

Life (1840-1889)

The word “leper”, meaning one possessed by a type of disease that devours flesh and bone, still makes us shudder, and brings to mind those victims of leprosy who, in the Bible and in medieval times, were excluded from human society because of the contagiousness of their ailment. That type of leprosy, now called “Hansen’s Disease”, has survived up to the present. In our own century, fortunately, medical science has found ways to treat and even to cure it.  In the 1860s, there were no such remedies. Consequently, when an epidemic of the disease hit the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, the ruler, King Kamehameha V, (this was before the United States acquired the Islands) ordered that the victims be rounded up and exiled to the barren island of Molokai. The 800 so quarantined, given little or no government assistance, and not even police to maintain public order, soon became lawless and hopeless, and the island a living tomb.

Eventually, however, a group of dedicated Catholics on Molokai asked the missionary bishop in Honolulu to send a priest to the island. The bishop agreed, and in 1873 sent a young member of the missionary Picpus Fathers (Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary), who had volunteered for the job. He was Damien Joseph de Veuster.  Father de Veuster was a Flemish Belgian, a native of Tremeloo. His was a farming family, and his father expected him to become a trader in grain. But Joseph’s brother Pamphile, already a member of the Picpus Congregation, interested him in joining the same community. He took his vows as “Damien”, a lay brother, in 1860. The community did not plan to admit him to the priesthood at first, for he was no theologian but a hearty, cheerful man who was a practical “doer”. Sent to the Hawaiian Island missions in 1863, he was, nevertheless, ordained a priest after arrival, and spent his first eight years in arduous work on the rural and island missions.

Father Damien, though zealous for souls when he volunteered for the leper island, was not yet a hero. When he first arrived, he slept under a tree for fear of contagion. But as he grew used to the lepers, he saw that their needs were physical as well as spiritual. So he became closer to them, lovingly dressing their sores, sharing his food and even his pipe with them, making their coffins, building them churches and houses and orphanages. Most of all, he became the champion of these outcasts and their better medical care. Hitherto a quiet man, he now turned into a ferocious lion when it came to demanding assistance for them from the government and the church. He had planned to work at Molokai for only a certain term. As it happened, he spent the rest of his life there.

Especially in his later years, he suffered much painful opposition. Some jealous non-Catholics denounced this rough-cut philanthropist, and even among the Picpus Fathers he had his critics. One of his greatest trials was lack of communication, and the inability to see any priests, even for confession.

In 1885 he himself contracted leprosy. When he discovered it, he made the announcement by addressing the congregation as “we lepers”. But being a leper grieved him far less than the opposition of his fellow priests. Towards the end of his life, he was comforted by the arrival of two “lay brothers” to assist him. Equally welcome were the Franciscan Sisters Conventual from Syracuse, N.Y., who arrived in 1883 under the leadership of [Saint] Mother Marianne Cope, and who labor at Molokai to this very day. The “Leper Priest” died on April 15, 1889.

Criticism of Father Damien did not cease with his death. The Rev. Dr. Hyde, a Protestant clergyman, wrote of him as a man of dubious morals. In 1900, the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson, also a Protestant, answered Dr. Hyde with an impassioned refutation. Correspondence in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser of Hawaii also proved that Hyde had misread his sources. Father de Veuster’s remains were taken to Belgium in 1936. His cause for canonization was introduced in 1955; he was declared “venerable” in 1977; on June 4, 1995, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II and canonized on October 11, 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.

Leprosy has not vanished, but is mostly under control. The parallel disease of AIDS has taken its place as a deadly worldwide contact disease. Saint Damien shows us how to act towards these new outcasts: Serve them lovingly as we find them  --Father Robert F. McNamara

Scripture (Acts 20:17-18a, 28-32, 36)
From Miletus Paul had the presbyters of the church at Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them:  "Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, in which you tend the church of God that he acquired with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you, and they will not spare the flock. And from your own group, men will come forward perverting the truth to draw the disciples away after them. So be vigilant and remember that for three years, night and day, I unceasingly admonished each of you with tears. And now I commend you to God and to that gracious word of his that can build you up and give you the inheritance among all who are consecrated." When he had finished speaking he knelt down and prayed with them all. 
(Year B). Beyond the leprosarium, I have to visit the whole island, which in length is two days travel. There is neither chapel nor house for the priest; there are about 200 Catholics scattered about. During two visits, I have had the honor of baptizing about 25 adults and infants. A good number are catechumens. We are preparing ourselves to build a chapel and a presbytery in the principal area of the island where the mission has a good piece of land [Kaluaaha]. I therefore ask you, very reverend Father, to please take into consideration the very difficult circumstances where I find myself I am totally alone in this island. For me to go to confession I need to go to Honolulu, which for a bad sailor like me is not very agreeable. Seasickness weakens me astonishingly. Besides, I am so insufficient for the work that the need for a second priest is urgent. Knowing your devotion to the missions, I will not over plead the case my reverend Father, for you to decide to send us a number of good young missionaries; know that we need a few good men, if not scholars, at least saints, priests to sacrifice themselves at all times for the salvation of the poor. When I have preached 4 or 5 times in one day, I can appreciate the image of a canal that comes from a reservoir run dry. Please pray and have others pray for me and for my beloved leprous parishioners that with God refilling every day the reservoir of my heart with his graces, I may be able to let it flow also in the hearts of those whom I regard as my children in Jesus Christ. (Letters)
Musical Selection
The very soul of Molokai is in the sand of this man's name Kamiano O Kamiano 
And on the winds of Molokai there is the echo of his fame Kamiano O Kamiano 
He is the rock to which we cling he is the hymn our voices sing He is the sand of faith that seeps through all our lives Kamiano O Kamiano 
Father of mercy, 
who gave us in Saint Damien 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.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
God, forever and ever. Amen.