Joseph de Veuster was born in Belgium on January 3, 1840. While at college, he decided God was calling him to be a priest. He joined the same community his brother had joined and took the name Damien. Damien’s brother had dreamed of being a missionary overseas. But he became ill and was unable to go. Damien offered to go in his place. He traveled to Hawaii and was ordained in Honolulu.
For nine years, Damien served the people in different villages around Hawaii. While working, he heard about a settlement of lepers on the island of Molokai. He was told that life on the island was terrible for the lepers. They were very poor, and there was not one doctor or priest on the island. Father Damien thought he was needed there. He went to Molokai to work with the lepers.
Those who could walk came to meet Father Damien’s boat. They wanted to see this priest who had come to work with them. They were sure he wouldn’t stay long when he saw what life there was like. Lepers often have unpleasant sores, and some even lose fingers and toes. Because there were no laws or police on the island, many who were not very ill lived wild lives.
Father Damien got busy right away. He cleaned up huts, nursed those who were very sick, and tried new medicines. Those able to help were put to work building better houses. Father Damien preached and offered Mass, but he also built roads, water systems, orphanages, and churches. He even started a choir and a band. He made the lepers feel that they were people with dignity. They learned to better respect themselves and one another.
Father Damien always began his homily with “My dear lepers.” One Sunday he stood before his congregation and began his homily by saying “My fellow lepers.” At first, it was very quiet. Then people began to sob. Their beloved Father Damien had gotten the disease. Even though he was ill, Father Damien carried on his work. Eventually, a group of Franciscan sisters from New York, under the leadership of Mother Marianne, came to help. Father Damien died when he was 49 years old.
Excerpted from Christ Our Life, by Sisters of Notre Dame of Chardon, Ohio
Image credit: Father Damien by William Brigham, 1889. Public Domain via Wikimedia.