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The life and legacy of Father Damien

Father Damien with leprosy sufferers

Father Damien, also known as Saint Damien of Molokai, was a remarkable priest whose life was dedicated to serving the most marginalized and forgotten individuals in society. His legacy is one of compassion, selflessness, and unwavering devotion to the suffering.

Born Jozef De Veuster on January 3, 1840, in Tremelo, Belgium, he would become an iconic figure in the history of humanitarianism and a beacon of hope for those afflicted by a devastating disease. His life and legacy continue to inspire countless individuals worldwide, serving as a testament to the transformative power of love and service.

Early years

The journey of Father Damien into a life of service and compassion began in his early years when he joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (the Picpus Fathers). He took the religious name Damien, a reference to Saint Damien of Alexandria. From that moment, his life was committed to following the teachings of Christ.

In 1864, he was ordained a priest, and soon after, he expressed his desire to embark on a missionary journey. His dream was to serve in the distant Hawaiian Islands, where his brother was already working as a priest.

Arrival in Hawaii

Upon his arrival in Hawaii in 1864, Father Damien came face-to-face with a society grappling with significant challenges. The indigenous Hawaiian population was suffering from the devastating impact of diseases introduced by Western contact. Leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, was particularly rampant.

People afflicted with leprosy were subjected to extreme social ostracism, forced to live in isolation on the remote island of Molokai. The situation was dire, and there was a desperate need for someone to provide not only spiritual guidance but also medical care and comfort to the afflicted.

Ministering to leprosy patients

It was in this crucible of suffering and despair that Father Damien’s true calling emerged. He volunteered to go to Molokai and minister to the needs of the leprosy patients. This act of selflessness was the beginning of a profound transformation in the lives of those on the island and in the life of Father Damien himself.

What was different from Father Damien was that he chose to live among the leprosy patients,  sharing their daily struggles, providing medical care, and offering spiritual guidance. He was not content to merely preach from the pulpit; he embraced the suffering of the people and lived a life of genuine empathy.

Father Damian in Hawaii

Bringing self-esteem to the exiled

Father Damien’s tireless efforts were a testament to his unwavering commitment to the principle that every individual, regardless of their condition or circumstances, deserves love, dignity, and compassion. He built houses, clinics, and churches on Molokai, creating a sense of community and providing basic medical care.

His work extended beyond the physical realm; he helped the patients regain their self-esteem and sense of worth, giving them the love and companionship they had been deprived of for so long.

Pater Damiaan in Hawaii

“The Apostle of the Lepers”

Despite the challenging living conditions and the constant exposure to leprosy, Father Damien never wavered in his commitment. He displayed a profound sense of solidarity with the marginalized. His extraordinary dedication and boundless compassion earned him the nickname “The Apostle of the Lepers,” as he became a symbol of hope for the residents of Molokai.

As the years passed, word of Father Damien’s work spread far and wide. People from around the world were moved by his selfless devotion to the leprosy patients.

Contracting the disease

In December 1884, while he was preparing to bathe, Damien inadvertently put his foot into scalding water, causing his skin to blister. He felt nothing and realized that he had contracted leprosy. A numbing to pain was a common way for people to discover that they had been infected with leprosy.

After 16 years of service, he had become one of the very people he had dedicated his life to serving. His diagnosis did not deter him from his mission, and he continued to minister to the patients even as the disease took its toll on his body.

Pater Damiaan with leprosy

Death at the age of 49

His arm in a sling, a foot in bandages, and with his leg dragging, Father Damien knew that his death was near. On 23 March 1889 he took to his bed, and died at 8 a.m. on 15 April 1889, at the age of 49.

The next day, the whole settlement followed the funeral cortège to the cemetery. Father Damien was laid to rest under the same pandanus tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokai.

Returned to Belgium

In January 1936, at the request of King Leopold III of Belgium and the Belgian government, Father Damien’s body was returned to his native land in Belgium and he was buried in Leuven. 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 Molokai.

Father Damien’s grave, photo (C) Michael Fenichel with thanks

Internationally acclaimed

Father Damien’s unwavering commitment to the people of Molokai earned him international acclaim. His actions prompted a renewed sense of empathy for those afflicted with leprosy and led to increased awareness of their plight. His story also inspired numerous individuals to join him in his mission, ensuring the continuity of care and compassion on Molokai.

He serves as a powerful example of the transformative power of compassion and selflessness. His life reminds us that one individual, armed with love and determination, can make an immeasurable difference in the lives of those who are suffering. His example has inspired countless individuals to engage in acts of service, to reach out to those in need, and to advocate for the rights and dignity of the marginalized.

“His cassock was worn and faded, his hair tumbled like a school-boy’s, his hands stained and hardened by toil; but the glow of health was in his face, the buoyancy of youth in his manner; while his ringing laugh, his ready sympathy, and his inspiring magnetism told of one who in any sphere might do a noble work, and who in that which he has chosen is doing the noblest of all works. This was Father Damien.”

Charles Warren Stoddard, who met Father Damien in 1884

Where to find out more

A visit to the Father Damien Museum in Tremelo is highly recommended. It guides you through the different periods in his life. It was recently modernized, is highly interactive, and is housed in the building where Father Damien was born and grew up.

Father Damien Museum, Tremelo, Belgium
The Father Damien Museum, Tremelo, Belgium

You may also like to visit St. Anthony’s Chapel in Leuven and pay your respects at the crypt of Father Damien, who has been buried here since 1936. Inside the church you can follow the career of Damien through a number of panels of photos.

Father Damien crypt, St. Anthony's Chapel, Leuven
The Father Damien crypt, St. Anthony’s Chapel, Leuven

(The crypt is one of the sites on the Discovering Belgium audio walking tour of Leuven, which is a great way to explore this beautiful city).

Let me know below if you have visited any of these sites, or perhaps have visited Molokai and seen the results of his work yourself.

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10 thoughts on “The life and legacy of Father Damien”

  1. It’s good to be reminded that so many people with or without faith have /have had such humbling compassion for others.

  2. In India Mother Teresa and some SSCC Fathers reached out to the leprosy affected persons and children and rehabilitated them by creating special colonies of peace. Fr Damien’s life is beyond compare in the way he loved and served them till his death by becoming one like them.

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