Blessed Damien of Molokai
Joseph "Jeff" de Veuster was born in 1840, the son of Belgian farmers. He and his brother, Pamphile, joined the congregation of the Sacred Hearts. These missionaries were responsible for the Catholic faith on the Hawaiian Islands. Jeff chose the name "Damien." Brother Damien was tall and strong. His years of helping on the family farm had given him a healthy look. Everybody liked him because he was good-natured and generous.
More missionaries were needed in the kingdom of Hawaii. In 1863, a group of Sacred Hearts priests and brothers were chosen to go. Pamphile, Damien's brother, was selected. Just before the departure date, Pamphile came down with typhoid fever. He could no longer consider going to the missions. Brother Damien, still studying to become a priest, asked to take his place. The father general accepted Damien's offer. He went home to his family for a loving farewell. Then he took the ship from Belgium to Hawaii, a journey of eighteen weeks. Damien finished his studies and was ordained a priest in Hawaii. He spent eight years among the people of three districts. He traveled on horseback and by canoe.
The people loved this tall, generous priest. He saw that they responded to ceremonies. He used the little money he could raise to build chapels. He and volunteer parishioners built the chapels themselves. But the most incredible part of Damien's life was soon to begin. The bishop asked for a volunteer priest to go to the island of Molokai. The very name struck the people with fear and dread. They knew that the section of the island called Kalawao was the "living graveyard" of people dying of leprosy. There was so much ignorance about the disease and such great fear of contagion that lepers were mostly abandoned. Many just despaired. There was no priest, no law enforcement agent on Molokai, no health-care facilities. The Hawaiian government sent some food and medical supplies, but it was not sufficient. And there were no organized means to distribute the goods.
Father Damien went to Molokai. Faced with the poverty, corruption and despair, even Damien was shaken. But he made up his mind that for him there was no turning back. The people were desperately in need of help. He went to Honolulu to confront the members of the board of health. They told him that he could not travel back and forth to Molokai for fear of contagion. Their real reason was that they didn't want him on Molokai. He was creating too many problems for them. So Damien had to make a choice: if he went back to Molokai, he could never leave. The board of health didn't know Damien. He chose Molokai.
He labored for eighteen years until his death on Molokai. With the help of the lepers and generous volunteers, Molokai was transformed. The word Molokai took on a whole different meaning. It became an island of Christian love. Father Damien eventually became a leper himself. He died on April 15, 1889, at the age of forty-nine and was buried there. He was proclaimed "blessed" by Pope John Paul II in 1994.
Blessed Damien showed a remarkable courage and generosity even to the point of giving his life. How is my witness as a Christian? Do I show love and support to those around me?