The story of St. Damien de Veuster (1840-1889) seems simple enough: A Belgian priest travels to Hawaii to serve as a missionary, where he gives his life in the service of lepers exiled to the island of Molokai. These simple labors, however, captured the imagination of people all over the world, and by the time of his death in 1889, Damien was internationally famed.
But he was also the target of smears and lies both while he lived and even after his heroic death. He was accused of self-promotion, malfeasance, drunkenness, and—above all—immoral behavior with the lepers under his care. His memory was attacked by Protestant ministers who envied his achievements and who resented the heroic renown of a Catholic priest. As lurid and hard to imagine such scurrilous attacks might be, they are also part of the legacy and the greatness of Damien de Veuster.
The Call of the Missions
Damien de Veuster seemed a most unlikely candidate for heroism. He was born Joseph de Veuster in Tremelo, Belgium, in 1840 and grew up in a devoutly Catholic peasant family. His older brother Auguste entered the Congregation of Sacred Hearts Fathers. Joseph also felt called to the priesthood. His father was opposed, but by sheer determination Joseph finally entered the Sacred Hearts Fathers as a postulant. He was admitted largely due to his brother’s intercession: The Sacred Hearts superiors considered him highly unsuitable for religious life and even less ideal for priesthood. Much like his near-contemporary in France, St. John Vianney, Joseph was poorly educated, uncouth, and hopeless at Latin at a time when failing to grasp that language meant virtual disqualification from ordination.
During the next months, however, Joseph mastered Latin and rapidly developed in the spiritual life. He carved the words “silence, recollection, and prayer” into his desk as a reminder of his daily spiritual goals. Over time, he earned the nickname “Silent Joseph” from his fellow seminarians. Sacred Hearts superiors permitted him to take vows on October 7, 1860. He took the religious name Damien.
Then the unexpected happened. A letter came to the congregation from the Hawaiian Islands, asking for priests to serve the far-flung missions. The motherhouse superiors chose six missionaries, among them Damien’s brother; sadly, however, Auguste contracted typhus. Damien volunteered to take his place. The father-general approved his request, which was surprising given that Damien was not yet ordained when he set out across the sea for the long trip to Hawaii. He reached Honolulu on March 19, 1864. On May 21, 1864, he was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu by Bishop Louis Desiré Maigret, the shepherd of the Catholic missions in Hawaii. Bishop Maigret did not have the luxury of training the young priest, so Fr. Damien learned his priestly role on the job. He was assigned to the Big Island, and over the next few years he grew to love the priestly life, the service in the missions, and the people of Hawaii. Yet it was a difficult life. He rarely saw another priest; he felt acutely the long periods without confession. He survived a fever, a hurricane, and an earthquake. He constructed several missionary chapels with his own hands. And there, on the Big Island, he first encountered lepers.
Father of the Exiled
Leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, had arrived in the Hawaiian Islands (probably with Asian laborers) and was declared a public health crisis in the early 1860s. Because of its gruesome reputation and ancient fears that it was a kind of divine retribution for sin, the disease caused a panic among the American and European populations in the islands. They soon persuaded King Kamehameha V that lepers should be quarantined. The 1865 royal decree mandated that lepers be arrested and taken by force to the settlement: The afflicted were torn from the arms of their loved ones and sent to die in exile on the island of Molokai.
Damien met a group of these poor souls and had a powerful premonition that he would soon be serving the lepers. He wrote in April 1873 to the father-general of the Sacred Hearts that he could “only attribute to Almighty God the undeniable feeling that soon I shall join them.” To prepare himself, he learned basic skills in nursing and dressing wounds.
Damien’s sense of destiny was confirmed when Bishop Maigret called together his priests and asked for volunteers to serve the leper settlement as rotating temporary chaplains. The lepers, he knew, were in desperate need of spiritual care. Priests had served there from time to time, but Maigret wanted a better solution. Damien immediately said yes.
On May 10, 1873, Maigret and Damien reached Molokai on the vessel Kilauea. The bishop gave a short speech to the lepers at the settlement. He told them he had brought them a priest “who will be a father to you . . . he will become one with you and live and die with you.” The bishop’s words were prophetic.
No Law, No Hope
The Molokai leper settlement was established to care for the lepers in their isolation. Despite the best efforts of superintendents, this aim was far from being met. One set of clothes was hardly sufficient for a year, medical care was poor, and the social conditions deteriorated quickly. The geographic isolation added to the sense of despair in the community. The colony was built on a narrow strip of land nestled between a jagged and forbidding coastline and steep, sheer, and rugged cliffs that made a trip to the rest of the island precarious.
Between 1866 and 1873, almost 40 percent of the patients sent to Molokai died without care and without hope. The youngest victims succumbed swiftly to infections and shock—as well as to frequent abuse. Some improvements were made under the direction of a superintendent named Walsh, including the building of a hospital for patients in the last stages of the disease, but after his death the situation went from bad to worse.
When Damien arrived and surveyed the settlement up close, the scene might well have evoked Dante’s proclamation at the gates of hell: “Abandon Hope All Who Enter Here.” Indeed, he was told by some of the lepers in their native Hawaiian, “Aole kanawai me heia wahi!”—”Here there is no law!” The 800 men, women, and children lived in dire circumstances. Medicine was scarce. The residents stole from each other and engaged in drunken orgies. They drank fermented homemade liquor in the hopes of ending their anguish and dying in a hazy stupor. The dead received neither burial nor funeral rites. Bodies were wrapped in rags, tied between two poles, and hurled down into a ravine where wild pigs feasted on them.
Damien set about firmly but patiently to bring order to the situation. He slept at first under a pandanus tree while he constructed his own small house. Next, he built better shelters and houses for the residents, part of a wider effort to create some semblance of moral and social order. He put an end to bullying and drunken spectacles, and patients began at last to die with love and attention. He restored dignity to the dead, making wooden coffins for each corpse. Before long, he had made 600 coffins with his own hands and dug graves himself in what came to be called the Garden of the Dead, the settlement cemetery.
It is nearly impossible to comprehend the horrors that confronted Damien on a daily basis, especially in the early years of his ministry. He sat with the dying, even those angry at God, and cared for the most ravaged and deformed of the lepers. He amputated arms and legs that had become gangrenous as the disease destroyed blood vessels and circulation. In the beginning, he vomited after leaving the huts of his patients and suffered blinding headaches because of the stench coupled with nervous tension.
Still, armed with peasant sense, Damien sought practical solutions to his problems. He started smoking a pipe of heavy tobacco to mask the staggering smells. Pressed for time when cooking his own meals, he stopped using plates, and instead served up stews and dinners on crackers. When he was finished with his stew, he ate the “plate” as well.
He also became part of the community. Without fear, he ate out of common poi bowls with lepers and allowed them to share his pipe. His indifference to his own well-being won the lepers’ trust at the cost of greatly increasing his risk of contracting the disease.
Celebrity and Calumny
Amidst the horrors of the settlement, Damien sent a letter to his provincial requesting that he be named permanent chaplain. He wrote to his brother, Auguste, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” The progress that he was making had already become manifest. The patients were enjoying improved care, the facilities were expanding, and Damien was providing both spiritual help and a much-needed sense of hope. The residents were so encouraged that they planted flower gardens and formed their own choir and band of musical instruments; many were handmade by Damien, and some were purchased or accepted as gifts by well-wishers.
Damien never sought popularity or fame, but gifts began to pour in nevertheless. In truth, he shunned the attention and had to be ordered to accept an award for his work from Queen Liliuokalani. Still, all of Hawaii talked of his labors, and word soon spread across the globe. Newspapers recounted stories about his efforts on behalf of the lepers, and charitable souls all over the world responded by sending money, gifts and letters of encouragement. One correspondent was an Anglican clergyman, Rev. Hugh B. Chapman of St. Luke’s Church, Camberwell, London, who wrote Damien in 1888 as the priest was in the his last stages of suffering. Chapman had raised more than 900 English pounds (4800 dollars in the Hawaiian Islands) for Damien and his lepers.
Damien knew that the worldwide fame would create problems for him. He faced opposition from Hawaiian authorities, envious Protestant ministers, and even his own superiors. Maigret’s successor, Bishop Herman Koeckemann, and the congregation’s regional provincial, Fr. Léonore Fouesnel, SS.CC., were at times exasperated by Damien’s notoriety, the gifts and money sent to him, and his unwavering commitment to the lepers. Priests sent to Molokai to assist him were a strange parade of personalities who often complained that Damien was untidy and irascible. Local Hawaiian authorities, jealous of Damien’s progress in the settlement, tried to interfere with his work and even decreed for a time that he should be quarantined with the lepers.
Some in England suggested that the lepers were better off dead or abandoned than in the hands of the “diabolical” Roman Catholic clergy. One letter in a British newspaper asserted that Damien was creating moral lepers and leading them to hell through his Catholic doctrines. Even worse were the lies spread about Damien himself. He was accused of being a glory-seeker, a drunkard, and a lecher. The accusation of immorality grew even more vicious when the world learned that Damien had been stricken with leprosy.
Death with True Dignity
Damien realized that he had Hansen’s Disease in December 1884 when he accidentally poured boiling water on his foot and felt no pain. He was officially diagnosed soon after but remained serene in the face of the prognosis. He went about his work as usual and continued his daily routine at the settlement until the disease made it impossible for him to walk. By 1884, the leper settlement was running so smoothly that Damien was assured of the long-term safety of his beloved lepers. His assurance was reinforced by the arrival of Mother Marianne Cope (beatified in 2005) on Molokai in 1888, who, with her fellow Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, would carry on his work. He could die in peace.
Damien bore his immense sufferings—physical and spiritual—with patience and fortitude. He never used his fame for personal gain, nor did he complain about his treatment by superiors or those who envied his accomplishments. He fought no feuds and held no grudges against those who treated him unfairly. Toward the end, his flesh became ravaged with infection, his eyesight deteriorated, and the slow collapse of his larynx made it often impossible for him to sleep. He spent many nights at prayer in the Garden of the Dead, where he could be close to the patients he had loved and buried. Because his eyesight was severely affected, he asked a fellow priest to read him the Divine Office. Shortly before he died, he made a general confession and renewed his vows in the Sacred Hearts Congregation. He also made it a point to be examined by a doctor who attested that his illness was leprosy and not venereal disease. The exam helped dispel the charge, levied by some Protestant ministers, that Damien was dying not from leprosy but syphilis.
Damien de Veuster died on April 15, 1889. He was buried 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—as well as renewed efforts to besmirch his memory (see “Fr. Damien’s Famous Defender,” opposite).
In 1936, his remains were transferred with great honors to Louvain, Belgium, to be buried in the crypt of the church of the Congregation of Sacred Hearts. In 1995, Damien was beatified by Pope John Paul II, and on October 11, 2009 he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.
Greatly Crowned with Success
“They passed their time with playing cards, hula (native dances), drinking fermented ki-root beer, homemade alcohol, and with the sequel of all this. Their clothes were far from being clean and decent on account of the scarcity of water, which had to be brought at that time from a great distance. . . . For a long time, as above stated, under the influence of this pernicious liquor, they would neglect everything else, except the hula, prostitution, and drinking. As they had no spiritual advisor, they would hasten along the road to complete ruin . . . As there were so many dying people, my priestly duty toward them often gave me the opportunity to visit them at their domiciles, and although my exhortations were especially addressed to the prostrated, often they would fall on the ears of the public sinners, who, little by little, became conscious of the consequence of their wicked lives, and began to reform, and thus with the hope in a merciful Savior, gave up their bad habits. Kindness to all, charity to the needy, a sympathizing hand to the sufferers and the dying, in conjunction with a solid religious instruction to my listeners, have been my constant means to introduce moral habits among the lepers. . . . I am happy to say, that, assisted by the local administration, my labors here, which seemed to be almost vain at the beginning, have, thanks to a kind Providence, been greatly crowned with success.”
—Fr. Damien de Veuster’s report to the Hawaiian Board of Health in 1886
Charity Makes Unity
“In order to follow Christ, Fr. Damien not only left his homeland but also risked his health: therefore as the word of Jesus proclaimed to us in today’s Gospel says he received eternal life (cf. Mk 10:30). . . Let us remember before this noble figure that it is charity which makes unity, brings it forth and makes it desirable. Following in St Paul’s footsteps, St. Damien prompts us to choose the good warfare (cf. 1 Tm 1:18), not the kind that brings division but the kind that gat hers people together. He invites us to open our eyes to the forms of leprosy that disfigure the humanity of our brethren and still today call for the charity of our presence as servants, beyond that of our generosity.”
—Pope Benedict XVI, canonization Mass, October 11, 2009
Fr. Damien’s Famous Defender
The news of Fr. Damien’s death triggered renewed efforts by anti-Catholics to defame his memory. The most infamous of these was by Dr. Charles McEwen Hyde, a Protestant cleric who wrote to a friend in America, Rev. H.B. Gage, that Damien had contracted the disease through debauchery with women patients. He died, Hyde said, as a result of his vices, his carelessness, and his corruption. According to Rev. Hyde, his death was divine retribution.
The letter made the usual rounds of Catholic-hating publications. Then it attracted the notice of famed writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who had visited Hawaii and seen firsthand Damien’s labors. Stevenson penned a vigorous defense that was published everywhere and cut to the heart of the criticism:
But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succors the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honor—the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost for ever. One thing remained to you in your defeat—some rags of common honor; and these you have made haste to cast away . . .
Stevenson added, “If that world at all remembers you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H.B. Gage.”