Damien de Veuster, the Saint of Molokai - Priest of Heroic Kindness
“Rejoice to be victims ready for the sacrifice, in union with our Heavenly Spouse, and upon the same Cross.” - Fr. Pierre Coudrin, founder of the Sacred Heart Fathers.
Jozef de Veuster was born into a devoutly Catholic farming family in Tremelo, Belgium on January 3 of 1840. The teachings of the Church served as signposts for the de Veuster family and the saints were symbols of dedication and right-living to them. In that age, religious vocations were considered normal acts of Christian generosity and not unusual sacrifices in one's life.
In 1859 Jozef (Jef) followed his sisters and his brother into the religious life and entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts Fathers in 1859, taking the religious name “Damien.” Not unlike the later experience of Saint Pio, the young de Veuster, untried, rough but eager, did not seem to demonstrate the intellectual ability or the educational background to make candidacy for the priesthood possible. However, young de Veuster worked very hard and applied himself in every way. Eventually, his superiors were convinced to give him a chance and he was set on the road to the Catholic priesthood.
From the beginning of his call to the religious life, Damien also felt called to serve in the foreign missions. In spite of all the obstacles put before him in religious life, what appears to have sustained and uplifted him was a marvelous awareness of the presence of God in his daily affairs, not unlike St. Therese of Lisieux.
His seminary days were marked by a humility and modesty that was not paraded in front of anyone and he lived a life of simple mortification. For a time, he shared a room with his older brother, Pamphile, also a member of the Sacred Hearts Congregation, who testified that Damien slept most of his nights on the floor, wrapped in a simple blanket.
Called to the Missions
Pamphile had been scheduled to be sent to the missions, but at the last moment was struck down by Typhus. Damien volunteered to take his place, arguing that the ticket for passage should not go to waste and that he was ready to offer his life in service to the missions. His superior agreed and Damien was sent to the Hawaiian islands. On March 19, 1864, Damien arrived in Honolulu, after a 4 and a half month sea voyage, as a 24 year old seminarian. French missionaries had founded a college on the Oahu and it was there that Damien completed his studies for the priesthood. On May 24, 1864, Bishop Maigret of Honolulu ordained Damien to the priesthood.
The missions did not afford Damien the luxury of being able to learn under a veteran priest and he was immediately thrust into regular pastoral responsibilities, with little preparation. He lived a simple life, traveling to and preaching on many islands. His witness, and that of his priest companions, converted many to the Catholic faith. Often dismayed by the behavior of the locals, Damien pressed on and started numerous large building projects. He built many chapels throughout the islands with his own hands – eventually becoming known as “the chapel builder of the Big Island.” For the idealistic young priest life was very hard, and Damien was frequently discouraged, but he tirelessly pressed on in his work.
In the early 1800's a plague struck the Hawaiian Islands and by 1862 the leprosy infection rate increased and was given as between 10 and 15 percent of the population by local doctors. In Damien's time there was no effective treatment for the dread disease and King Kamehameha V issued a decree in 1865 which enacted a policy of segregation in all the islands of those who were suffering from leprosy. In June of 1865 the island of Molokai was chosen as the location for the leprosarium, or the sanitorium for the lepers. By the end of 1866 people were being forcibly rounded up and taken to Molokai, an island that writer Robert Louis Stevenson called “grand, gloomy and bleak.”
The Road to Glory
In a few short years, the pleas of the islanders on Molokai, for a priest to regularly minister to them, reached the bishop and he agreed to a plan to rotate priests through the island on a three month basis. Fr. Damien instantly volunteered and convinced the bishop to designate him as the one priest for the leper colony. He was not the first priest to visit Molokai. Many had gone before him, staying for up to three weeks at a time. Damien, though, had been chosen as the first pastor and he would never leave his new post while he was alive. Many priests and religious sisters would come after him, inspired by his example.
Fr. Damien gave his life in service to his fellow human beings, bringing Christ to them in their greatest hour of need and suffering. He lived the words of the founder of his religious order: “Rejoice to be victims ready for the sacrifice, in union with our Heavenly Spouse, and upon the same Cross.”and when he faced the daily horrors of leprosy, once again he recalled the words of Fr. Pierre Coudrin: “Nature may shudder, but grace will finally triumph.”
St. Damien of Molokai Holy Card
On April 15, 1889, Fr. Damien died of the dread disease he had lived and worked amidst for the past 16 years. He had ministered to thousands on Molokai and had embraced the Cross, unto death, for Christ's sake. On October 11, 2009 he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in a solemn ceremony at St. Peter's in Rome.
This article is brought to you by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods. Written by Mike Davis.
Sources for this article include the book "St. Damien of Molokai: Apostle of the Exiled" by Margaret and Matthew Bunson, the feature film "Molokai" and the Wikipedia article on the saint.