As we travel through our calendar of Catholic saints, we come upon so many who devoted their lives for the Lord in ways that are truly selfless, without any regard to their own physical pains and sufferings, Saint Joseph de Veuster or Father Damien as he was called, was one such saint.
Born in Belgium on January 3rd in 1840, he was raised on a small family farm. He was a strong young man with a sturdy build and was very helpful to his family in taking care of the chores that needed to be done. When he was thirteen he left school to help at the farm full time. When he was eighteen he joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and took the name of Damien, after a favorite saint. By that time, he felt that God was calling him to the priesthood. As would happen, his older brother who was already a priest, had been assigned to the Hawaiian Islands, but fell ill and was too sick to travel, since travel preparations had already been made, Damien sought approval to take his brother’s place. He arrived in Honolulu in March of 1864 and was ordained a priest, May of the following year.
During this time, leprosy, which had recently been introduced to the people of Hawaii, began to ravage the native people, and as a means of controlling the spread, the Hawaiian government decided to quarantine all those who had leprosy, on the neighboring island of Molokai. The government sent food and rations to the leper colony, but for the most part, the suffering people were not cared for properly, and as the people lost strength…as they lost hope…the colony fell into great disarray. This concerned the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and the Bishop wished to send one of his priests to care for the ailing colony. Since leprosy at that time was incurable, he did not wish to insist on sending one priest to his death sentence…instead he chose four young priests, hoping they would take turns in caring for the sick colony, but he made sure they knew that they had the freedom to stay longer with the people or return home….Father Damien volunteered to be the first one to go.
After finding that the people in the colony were in dire need of spiritual healing, he sought permission from his superior to remain with the colony and to live with them, so as to become one of them. He wanted to show these people that God loved them no matter what. Of course, he prayed for the people to be healed, but above all, he prayed for them to know that God had not abandoned them in their suffering. Not only did Father Damien wish for them to know Christ, but he wanted them to feel Christ’s love too…and being the good priest that God desired him to be….he lived with the colony and worked with them, side by side, to rebuild the village which had fallen into such great disrepair and to reignite the hope of the people that had fallen into despair.
Not only did he help repair their houses, and built a church. He also anointed their foreheads with Holy oil, he said Masses for them, heard their confessions and gave them the Holy Eucharist. He baptized the babies and the converts. He prayed for the sick…and for the dead as well. He helped build coffins and helped them as they buried their dead ….never flinching from the horrible smell that often accompanied the rotting sores of leprosy. ..He became one of them in spirit…using his healthy hands to share Christ’s love and the Holy Faith with these cast away people. This act of unselfish love endeared him to the colony and they received him with great love and admiration. Many people converted to the Faith…the Church grew….Christ’s love was evident in the actions of this Faithful priest, the people of Molokai once again regained their hope…
For the next sixteen years, Father Damien de Veuster lived with the lepers and cared for their spiritual needs as well as their physical needs…often caring for the wounds that spread over the bodies of the lepers. Unfortunately, this close contact with the colony resulted in the priest contracting the dreaded disease. And even though he knew that he was dying, he continued to work tirelessly, trying to care for all of the suffering people on Molokai. Finally, after suffering quietly…his body succumbed to the disease on April 15, 1889, at the age of 49.
Father Damien inspired many while he was living, and he continues to inspire many people to this day. He was able to see Christ in those he cared for…it did not matter that their bodies …their faces… might be so completely disfigured by disease…he saw people with a Heart of Christ…wanting for all people, regardless of what they believed…to be able to enjoy the salvation that Christ had won for them…he felt that it was his duty to share Christ’s love with everyone…it was his duty to convert the souls for God.…and he gave his life doing just that…He is a remarkable inspiration for us all!
Saint Damien de Veuster, pray for us, that we may see others as you saw them…as the children of the One True God, and that we may treat them with the love and respect they deserve as being such. Amen.