St. Damien of Molokai, also called Father Damien, original name Joseph de Veuster, was born in rural Belgium on 3 January 1840, the youngest of seven children. He was educated at the college of Braine-le-Comte, and in 1858 he joined the Society of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus Fathers) at Leuven, Belgium.
Growing up on a farm, it was assumed that he would eventually take over the farm. Instead, Jozef attended college in Braine-le-Comte, then entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Leuven. He took the name of Brother Damianus (Damiaan in Dutch, Damien in French) in his first vows, presumably in reference to the first Saint Damian, an early Christian saint who was said to perform miracles.
Following in the footsteps of his older sisters Eugénie and Pauline (who had become nuns) and older brother Auguste (Father Pamphile), Damien became a “Picpus” Brother (another name for members of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) on 7 October 1860. His superiors thought that he was not a good candidate for the priesthood because he lacked education. However, he was not considered unintelligent. Because he learned Latin well from his brother, his superiors decided to allow him to become a priest. During his ecclesiastical studies, Damien prayed daily before a picture of St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, to be sent on a mission.
Three years later in place of his brother, Father Pamphile, who had been stricken by illness, he went as a missionary to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands in 1863. He reached Honolulu on 19 March 1864 and was ordained a priest the same year.
In 1865 Father Damien was assigned to the Catholic Mission in North Kohala on the island of Hawaii. While Father Damien was serving in several parishes on Oahu, the Kingdom of Hawaii was struggling with a labor shortage and a public health crisis, as identified by planters. Many of the parishioners Native Hawaiians had high mortality rates to such Eurasian infectious diseases as smallpox, cholera, influenza, syphilis, and whooping cough, brought to the Hawaiian Islands by foreign traders, sailors and immigrants. Thousands of Hawaiians died of such diseases, to which they had no acquired immunity.
It is believed that Chinese workers carried leprosy (later known as Hansen’s disease) to the islands in the 1830s and 1840s. At that time, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious and incurable. Later the medical community determined that roughly 95% of human beings are immune to it and, in the 20th century, developed effective treatment. In 1865, out of fear of this contagious disease, Hawaiian King Kamehameha IV and the Hawaiian Legislature passed the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. This law quarantined the lepers of Hawaii, requiring the most serious cases to be moved to a settlement colony of Kalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokai.
From 1866 through 1969, a total of about 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula for medical quarantine. The Royal Board of Health initially provided the quarantined people with food and other supplies, but it did not have the manpower and resources to offer proper health care. The Kingdom of Hawaii had planned for the lepers to be able to care for themselves and grow their own crops, but, due to the effects of leprosy and the local environmental conditions of the peninsula, this was impractical. Moved by the miserable condition of the lepers whom the Hawaiian government had deported to Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai, he volunteered to take charge of the settlement.
On May 10, 1873, the first volunteer, Father Damien, arrived at the isolated settlement at Kalaupapa, where 816 lepers then lived, and was presented by Bishop Louis Maigret. At his arrival he spoke to the assembled lepers as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you”.
During this time, Father Damien had not only cared for the lepers, but also established leadership within the community to improve the state of living. Father Damien aided the colony by teaching, painting houses, organizing farms, organizing the construction of chapels, roads, hospitals, and churches. He also personally dressed residents, dug graves, built coffins, ate food by hand with lepers, shared pipes with them, and lived with the lepers as equals. Father Damien also served as a priest during this time and spread the Catholic Faith to the lepers; it is said that Father Damien told the lepers that despite what the outside world thought of them, they were always precious in the eyes of God. Under the leadership of Father Damien, laws were more strongly enforced, working farms were more organized, and schools along with an education system were established.
Father Damien worked for 16 years in Hawaii providing comfort for the lepers of Kalaupapa. In December 1884 while preparing to bathe, Damien inadvertently put his foot into scalding water, causing his skin to blister. He felt nothing and realized he had contracted leprosy after 11 years of working in the colony. This was a common way for people to discover that they had been infected with leprosy. Residents said that Damien worked vigorously to build as many homes as he could and planned for the future of programs he had established.
Despite the illness slowing down his body, in his last years, Damien engaged in a flurry of activity. He tried to complete and advance as many projects as possible with his time remaining. While continuing to spread the Catholic Faith and aid the lepers in their treatments, Damien completed several building projects and improved orphanages.
With an arm in a sling, a foot in bandages, and his leg dragging, Damien knew death was near. He was bedridden on 23 March 1889, and on 30 March he made a general confession. Damien died of leprosy at 8:00 a.m. on 15 April 1889, aged 49. The next day, after Mass said by Father Moellers at St. Philomena’s, the whole settlement followed the funeral cortège to the cemetery. Damien was laid to rest under the same pandanus tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokai.
In January 1936, at the request of King Leopold III of Belgium and the Belgian government, Damien’s body was returned to his native land in Belgium. It was transported aboard the Belgian ship Mercator. Damien was buried in Leuven, the historic university city close to the village where he was born. After Damien’s beatification in June 1995, the remains of his right hand were returned to Hawaii and re-interred in his original grave on Molokai.
King David Kalākaua bestowed on Damien the honor of “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua”. When Crown Princess Lydia Liliuokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she was reported as having been too distraught and heartbroken at the sight of the residents to read her speech. The princess shared her experience, acclaiming Damien’s efforts. Consequently, Damien became internationally known in the United States and Europe. American Protestants raised large sums of money for the missionary’s work. The Church of England sent food, medicine, clothing, and supplies to the settlement. It is believed that Damien never wore the royal medal, although it was placed by his side at his funeral.