St Damien de Veuster

Author: Charles Paolino

St Damien de Veuster

Charles Paolino
Permanent deacon
Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey

A missionary unafraid to live and die with his people

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 [2009].

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 name Damien.

He aspired to be a missionary, and his opportunity came unexpectedly. Auguste — 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 — leprosy — 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 unexpected source — 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 met Damien.

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?".

Stevenson — 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 sepulcher".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 October 2009, page 8

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