Father Damien and the Lepers
May the 10th is the feast day of Father Damien of Molokai. Born Josef de Veuster he became a priest and was part of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a religious order. Born in Belgium he followed two sisters and a brother into the vocations.
Damien took to the missions, having a great respect for former missionary priests such as Francis Xavier, and would end up taking his brothers place on a mission to Hawaii. While ministering there he heard of a colony of lepers on Molokai and undertook to help the people there.
Molokai, being a leper colony, was a place of isolation, fear and death. You went there to die, and there was no coming back. Damien, left the shores of paradise of his own volition to minister in what was about as close to the idea of hell as you could get. The loss of culture, civilization and the hopelessness of a disease that destroyed the ability to feel, not only isolated the lepers from the rest of the world but also from themselves. Many bore the horrible wounds and disfigurement, the stench of rotting flesh and wounds. Damien, however, took to rebuilding their humanity and dignity. Through labor, purpose, and caring, he built houses and farms and brought a sense of order back to the people. He provided mass and the sacraments to the many catholics on Molokai and soon converts began to come.
“Outcast! Unclean!” Were words yelled by the leper to warn people of their disease. Leprosy, was a very contagious disease. About 10 years into his ministry on Molokai, Father Damien found that he had contracted the disease. Placing a foot into scalding water, he felt nothing. Nerves once vibrant had been destroyed by the disease. With the loss of the ability to feel, the disease begins and slowly the body wastes away. A simple scratch, not being felt, can become infected and devastate the body. Even if a person can protect their extremities the disease wastes the flesh away. And so the warning was heeded well. But Father Damien touched lepers, he cared for them, and he lived with them, unwilling to let the fear of disease stop his ministry. It is said that the true gift of healing is found in those, who after prayer and laying on of hands with no result, stay by the bedside to feed, clean, comfort, and be with the sick.
It must have been hard and lonely at times for Damien being the only priest in Molokai. It is said that he would cry out his confession from the shore to a priest in a nearby boat to receive absolution. And to make matters worse, his ministry was even criticized by some, to which the writer Robert Louis Stevenson would respond in the priests defense.
Father Damien Died on April the 15, 1889, and was canonized in 2009. He is known as the Leper Priest, the Aposlte to the lepers, St. Damien of Molokai.