Many a time 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. The smell of the pipe preserved me somewhat from carrying in my clothes the obnoxious odor of our lepers.
Like all canonized saints, St. Damien spent considerable time on earth striving to serve to God. As a result, he made difficult choices that many of us would shy away from. Jesus showed us the way to heaven is not a way of comfort. In imitation of Jesus, Damien gladly took up his cross daily and added to it the burdens of others.
The hardship Damien is known for helping people endure was the cross of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. In the days before a cure, this disease caused great suffering. Patients lived with pain and disfigurement. Progression brought paralysis, shortening of fingers and toes through reabsorption, chronic non-healing ulcers, and blindness. Added to that, because of the contagious nature of this incurable disease, they became isolated.
Death was inevitable. Living as outcasts, those dying of leprosy could not even take comfort in being surrounded by family and friends in their last days.
St. Damien had no illusions when he volunteered to serve afflicted Hawaiians. Helping to bear their burdens would be a challenge. That did not stop his determination to show them God’s love. Even the prospect of finding himself also a leper, with all it entailed, would not deter him.
Attempting to keep Hansen’s disease from spreading, King Kamehameha V of Hawaii quarantined everyone found to have this condition, not even sparing infants and children. All were sent to Molokai.
This was the situation at the time St. Damien arrived:
It was a dark chapter in Hawaiian history. Bounty hunters roamed the islands in search of suspected leprosy cases; families were torn apart by what they called “the separating sickness.” Since there was no cure for leprosy, to be sentenced to Molokai was to be sentenced to death. The prisoner-patients arrived by the boatload, and if the surf was too rough for landing, they might be cast into the sea and made to swim to shore. Misery reigned on the peninsula, which acquired an unofficial motto: Aole kanawai ma keia wahi—in this place there is no law.
What would possess this man, born to a farming family in Belgium, to volunteer to serve in such a cruel environment? Evidence points to his upbringing. Consider what happened with some of his siblings: two of his sisters became nuns, and one brother entered the priesthood.
Born in 1840, his parents gave him the name Joseph de Veuster. As a child, he loved the stories of the saints his mother read to him. The lives of these great people left their mark on him. This is a reminder that it is important to live a life worth emulating because even after death we can make a difference.
In his teens, Joseph became convinced of a calling to the priesthood and missionary life. After joining the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Joseph changed his name to Damien. According to the New World Encyclopedia, “He took this name in conscious imitation of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, ancient ‘physician-saints,’ who ‘went among the sick and were martyred for Christ.'” Given this, it is no surprise he ended up on Molokai.
Travel from Belgium to Hawaii was difficult in Joseph’s day. When he left his family, they knew their time together on earth was over. St. Damien of Molokai: Apostle of the Exiled, by Matthew and Margaret Bunson, gives a moving account of his farewell with his mother.
They met in the shrine of Our Lady of Monatagi, in the company of another relative. It appears that the mother and son spent most of their reunion in silence. It was not the awkward, graceless absence of words that typify anger or resentment. These were two human beings who had shared decades of faith, resolve, and care. Few words are needed to bridge such souls.
Damien gave up the comforts of home and loving family to go to a place of lawlessness, sickness, and death; a brutal illness and death he knew he might well share. He did this to glorify God.
Damien did not just share in the sufferings of these outcasts. He brought them a better life. He realized immediately that there were some big problems:
When Damien arrived he encountered the residents, a few huts but no police force. So, Damien came to a land in which there was no law, other than the law that might makes right. The stronger could overpower the weaker, abusing them physically and sexually and taking away their possessions. Abuse of women and children was common.
There were no consequences for bad behavior. How could you threaten them with jail? In their minds, they already were in jail.
He began his mission by treating the dead with dignity. At the time of his arrival, some of the departed lay unburied. Others were placed in shallow graves, often dug up by wild pigs.
Imagine living with the site of lifeless and partially eaten bodies. Think about seeing them every day, knowing this is your future.
Realizing the impact caring for the dead would have on morale, Damien established the Christian Burial Association. Now the dead could receive funerals and proper burials. He also built cemeteries with gates to keep wild animals out.
Suffering from their illness was bad enough by itself. However, the brutal living on an island without laws while just waiting to die made things intolerable. Father Damien changed all that, too.
He taught the people to raise livestock and plant crops, with the goal of being self-sufficient. They learned to build homes and roads and even new docking facilities. There needed to be more than work, though. Residents learned musical instruments, leading Damien to form a band and a choir.
More importantly, like Jesus, he was willing to touch lepers. Though warned against it, Damien did things his own way. He touched the ill, ate with them, and even shared his pipe.
For Catholics, he brought the much-needed gift of the sacraments.
The result? Englishman Edward Clifford visited in 1888. This is his witness:
I had gone to Molokai expecting to find it scarcely less dreadful than hell itself, and the cheerful people, the lovely landscapes, and comparatively painless life were all surprises. These poor people seemed singularly happy.
A letter from Father Damien to his brother shows the horrors the sick lived with. It also gives you a glimpse into the soul of a man who would volunteer to improve their lives, even knowing this could well be his future:
As the flesh was eaten away, wrote Damien, it gave off “a fetid odor; even the breath of the leper becomes so foul that the air around is poisoned with it.” Once, at Sunday Mass, he was so overcome by the smell that he nearly had to flee from the church. Sometimes the sick went about with worms writhing in their sores, like cadavers.
This begs the question: How did Damien manage to not only stay there but thrive there? Compassion only goes so far. Damien’s strength came from God.
An article in the Catholic World Report tells us that Eucharist “made his life on Molokai bearable.” Father Herman Gomes, a priest in Hawaii who has studied St. Damien’s life, adds:
…from the minute Fr. Damien got up in the morning, he’d begin with morning prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Mass.
He’d then pray as he’d go about his daily duties. For example, he was burying people all the time. He would say the rosary while he was digging in the graveyard, or the Garden of the Dead, as he called it.
Constant prayer is the root of everything good. We see it over and over in the stories of the saints. More importantly, through Scripture, we see it in the life of Jesus.
While learning about St. Damien, a song from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been on repeat in my brain.
God help the outcasts, hungry from birth.
Show them the mercy they don’t find on Earth.
The lost and forgotten, they look to you still.
God help the outcasts, or nobody will.
That last line stands out to me, “God help the outcasts, or nobody will.” It is precisely through somebodies that God helps the outcasts. He calls us to be Damiens.
I think it is no coincidence St. Damien is my saint for this year. Everything about him challenges me. He responded to a call that I would in so many ways find difficult, maybe impossible. I am not at all certain I would say “yes.”
Saint Damien brought happiness to people previously living in a kind of hell on earth. In the midst of an incurable, disfiguring disease, they found something to look forward to. Life changed because of a man who came to bring them God’s love and lead them home.
St. Damien, pray for me, that I may live to be of service to God.