St. Damien of Molokai

Father Damien famously lived out his life willingly among a Hawaiian leper colony, despite it being untreatable and considered highly contagious in that time. The model he used with the people of Molokai inspired others in the US during the height of the HIV/AIDS outbreaks.

Lifetime: 1840 to 1889
Region: Belgium; Hawaii
Patronages: People with leprosy; Hawaii
Iconograpy: Missionary's hat; Lei; Leprosy wounds
Feast Day: May 10

Father Damien (as he came to be known) was born Jozef, the youngest of seven children born to corn merchant parents in Belgium. He went to school when he was young, but dropped out at 13 to help his family on the farm. However, his education did resume later when his father sent him to college, but while Damien was there, he encountered a religious mission and decided to instead pursue a religious life himself.

Because of his lack of education, Damien was almost prevented from becoming a priest, but he was allowed due to his fluency in Latin, which his older brother had taught him. Every day Damien prayed to St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries, to be sent on a mission himself. After three years, his prayer was answered – Damien’s older brother had been scheduled for a mission to Hawaii, but became ill, so Damien was sent in his place.

Damien was ordained when he arrived in Hawaii and was assigned to several parishes there. However, Hawaii (which was not yet part of the United States) had only recently first encountered European explorers and traders, and many diseases began to spread throughout the islands, including smallpox and leprosy. To control the spread of these diseases, the sick began to be isolated to the island of Molokai.

Conditions on Molokai grew grim, as the government didn’t understand leprosy and had expected the ill to farm their own food in their new quarantined home. The bishop knew that these people needed a priest, but didn’t want to force anyone to go, as that would be a death sentence. He and the priests of Hawaii prayed and four priests, including Damien, volunteered for the risky mission to Molokai.

Damien was the first of the four priests to arrive, and he began his mission to the lepers of Molokai by working with them to build a church. Beyond his priestly duties, Damien also cared for their wounds, helped build houses and furniture, and helped bury the dead. He shared food with the people consigned to life in Molokai, helped them build roads, educated them as he could, and lived as an equal with them. He told them that no matter what others said about them because of their illness, they were always precious in the eyes of God.

At the request of both Damien himself and the lepers of Molokai, he remained with them rather than rotating out with the other three volunteer priests. During Damien’s time there, life in the colony improved greatly, as shacks were replaced by painted houses and self-sufficient schools and farms began to function. He was recognized by the king of Hawaii, and many American and European Christians heard about the mission and sent supplies to help.

However, the risk that Damien took on for this mission was very real, and after 11 years at the colony he contracted leprosy himself. Knowing his death was coming soon, Damien worked even harder to help the people of Molokai while the illness slowly consumed his body. He continued to spread the Catholic faith, established more buildings for the community, and completed work on an orphanage. Damien died of leprosy at the age of 49.

The entire community attended Damien’s funeral. He was initially buried under a tree he had slept under when he first arrived at Molokai, but his body was moved back to Belgium at the request of the Belgian king, to be buried again close to where he was born, though his right hand was eventually returned to his original grave site in Molokai.

While it is important to recognize that the people of Molokai were also responsible for many of the colony’s improvements, the self-sacrificing dedication of Father Damien to people whose own government had abandoned is inspirational. St. Damien of Molokai was canonized in 2009. The day of his death, April 15, is celebrated as a statewide holiday in Hawaii.

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