Saint Damien of Molokai

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Saint Damien, a Belgian priest who was a missionary to lepers exiled to the small Hawaiian island of Molokai, epitomized sacrifice. He gave his life service to these outcasts.  Although in 1889 his selfless love of God and neighbor made him famous around the world by the time of his death at the age of 49, this renowned Catholic priest was once deemed a slacker.

This unlikely hero was born Joseph de Veuster to a devoutly Catholic peasant family and followed his older brother Auguste on the path to priesthood by joining the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts Fathers.  Unlike his brother, Joseph struggled to learn Latin, was poorly educated, and was deemed unsuitable for religious life by his superiors.  By focusing on three simple words which he carved in his desk silence, recollection, and prayer, Joseph improved his Latin and overall education and took his first vows and the religious name Damien at age of 20.

A few years later, the congregation from the Hawaiian Islands sent a letter asking for priests to serve the missions there.  Although he volunteered, Damien was not one of the initial six missionary priests chosen, but when his brother who was chosen became ill, Damien was chosen as his replacement even before he was ordained a priest.

Two months after landing in Hawaii, he was ordained and became Father Damien.  The former slacker learned his priestly role on the job while serving the people of the big island of Hawaii.  Over the next decade as a missionary, he constructed several chapels with his own hands, survived an earthquake, and encountered his first lepers.    

With his focus on God over self, Father Damien volunteered to serve the lepers who the government had arrested and quarantined on the small island of Molokai.  Before Father Damien arrived, the situation on Molokai was chaotic and uncivilized.  Medicine was scarce, and the residents stole from each other, drank homemade liquor, and hurled the dead into ravines for wild pigs to eat. 

After sleeping under a pandanus tree while he constructed his own small house, Father Damien built better shelters and houses for the residents, put an end to bullying and drunken spectacles, and restored dignity to the dead, making wooden coffins by hand.  His work received worldwide attention and soon afterward there came money, gifts, and letters of encouragement from people around the globe.

Fr. Damien discovered he had leprosy shortly after he wrote to his brother, Fr. Auguste, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”  He would die a few years later and residents buried him under the pandanus tree where he had slept when he first arrived on Molokai. The news of his death was broadcast around the world, prompting immense mourning.

In 1995, Damien was beatified by Pope John Paul II, and on October 11, 2009, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.

Jesus shared that there is no greater love than laying down your life for others (John 15:13), and that’s what St. Damien did.  As Saint John Paul II liked to repeat, Jesus told us to be not afraid.  Even in the face of a horrible disease, Saint Damien focused on his priestly duties and restoring order rather than any fear he may have had.

Like many of us slackers, he was not the smartest or most gifted, but by focusing on three simple steps of silence, recollection, and prayer like Thérèse, he allowed God to work through him.  He accepted some difficult challenges including a mission halfway around the world and then working with the outcasts, but he followed basic steps to ensure God’s love would be felt.  On the island with the lepers, he first focused on restoring order and basics like food, shelter and medicine before focusing on the spiritual areas. 

Like other saints whose humanitarian work gained global fame, he used that to bring hope to the leper colony rather than personal gain. Just as Jesus became one of us becoming fully human, Saint Damien became one of the lepers.  Both would suffer painful deaths but Damien, who had a share in Christ’s Passion, shared, too, in His Resurrection to leave a legacy that carried on well after his passing from this earth. Mother Marianne Cope and her Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse arrived in Molokai just before Saint Damien’s death and would carry on his work.  As Christians, we are called to carry on the work Jesus started.  So what are we waiting on, fellow slackers?

Greg Hendry is a devoted father of five children and lives in Flower Mound, Texas, with his wife, MaryBeth. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame, served as a ranger and captain in the U.S. Army, and earned a master’s from Cornell University. During his work in the airline and tech industries over twenty years, he founded fromHeaven Books. With books spanning from children’s book honoring his late wife, Allison, to a “power” series on priest, religious, and eventually the laity, his publications have been featured on EWTN radio and in various Catholic publications. He serves as a Serra club member, ambassador for Catholic radio, and a featured speaker at Catholic teen and vocational events.

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