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Life of St. Damian of Molokai
Author: Nathaniel Slattery
Posted: Maundy Day, 28th of St. Joseph, Year of Our Lord 2024

Saint Damian of Molokai – Born January 3rd 1840, Died April 15th 1889

Born in Belgium named Joseph de Veuster

He was a friar in a religious order, the Society of the Sacred Hearts, considered ignorant, came from a peasant family and preceded in the order by his older brother. Europe at this time had a surplus of priests and monks, hence why they sent them often overseas to missions, as in the case of Hawaii. Brother Damian went to Hawaii for nine years as a missionary, being ordained a priest there in 1864. At this time, there was an outbreak of leprosy. The government quarantined everyone in an area resembling a penal colony, in which there was no hope of escaping after entrance. They were providing some aid and support for these poor lepers, but it was very insufficient.

Father Damien knew when he volunteered to go there that he was likely never to leave. He knew well also that he would be likely to contract leprosy and die. He volunteered with this in mind.

Upon his arrival, our saint found that the colony was very poorly maintained. There were some government workers there supposedly building roads and infrastructure. The idea was that the lepers would grow their own food and have their own society with support from the government. However, there was no leadership nor structure, and none of this was happening.

He, despite being somewhat poor and ignorant, became the de facto mayor and governor. He took the government funds and resources that were being misused under false pretenses and began to use them properly. He oversaw building roads, hospitals, schools, orphanages, all the things which were lacking and increasing the suffering of the lepers dying without any care, leaving also their children as orphans. He organized all of this through incredible efforts.

Father Damian also had the option to leave early on, to be replaced with another priest, but he refused. He said that he wanted to stay with these people. He had grown to love them.

He worked there for sixteen years, only six with the help of other priests. He contracted leprosy in 1884 and lived with it for five years. He discovered this because of a bath which had been heated to scalding, and having sunk his foot in, it began to blister. He could not feel it.

This occurs because leprosy deadens the nerves. As it advances, it can cause the loss of fingers and toes and is usually marked by great fatigue. As Father Damian underwent these symptoms and knew that it was to be his last year of life, rather than resting, he labored harder than ever. He exhausted himself for the love of his people and of God.

Father Damien was slandered by a doctor of Hawaii and others during his life but was exonerated after his death. He was buried with the people he loved, his body later being moved to his native Belgium, and the right hand being sent back to Molokai to his original grave.

By all natural measures, Father Damian should not have done what he had done. It is common parlance to say “treat that person like a leper”, and it means to absolutely avoid them. Father Damian, being a poor, ignorant, peasant Belgian, a person of vastly different race, background, and even climate and geography, with no children because he was a priest, treated the people of this colony with more love than a natural father sometimes treats his sons. Why is that? Because of the supernatural vocation of the priesthood, which makes a man father of his spiritual children whom he has saved through baptism, encouraged through confirmation, and perfected with the other Sacraments. Rather than moving from here to there every few years, Father Damian put down roots in the most neglected and distant part of God’s vineyard and brought his people to Heaven by incredible labors and ultimately by laying down his life, which took many years of suffering, and was not a momentary decision.

This is true martyrdom and sacrifice. The vast majority of martyrs are killed among strangers who hate them. In this they imitate Christ Himself. But St. Francis of Assisi, who desired the crown of martyrdom so keenly, is the example of one whom God grants a living martyrdom. Through this grace, one is to die to oneself, which means a perfect sacrifice and love of whatever God commands that we love, even people, places, labors, and occupations which are despised and hated, as a man might be despised today if he lived with his mother for thirty years doing quiet, humble labor, and never marrying.

Christ left Heaven, His homeland, and traveled a great distance to this tearful valley to save those people who were subjected to the devil’s dominion, worshiping false gods which had them participating in such vulgar lusts as a piece of religion without any ability to escape it. In a similar manner, Father Damian left his homeland and saved the poor people of Molokai, sparing no difficulty to himself to provide them every comfort of body and necessity of soul.

When he died, the advancement of technology had resulted in the telegram. Father Damian’s story was one of the first communicated by telegram to the Old World. The world was highly impressed by this, and it caused the building up of the Church at that time and today.

St. Damian of Molokai pray for us!

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