White sand beaches, towering sea cliffs, coral reefs, and vacation destination. This might be how some would describe Molokai, Hawaii’s fifth largest island. But one-hundred and fifty years ago, it was a place that Saint Damien would speak of as a “special Calvary”.
Saint Damien’s Heart for Missions
Joseph De Vuester was born in Belgium in 1840. Nineteen years later he followed in the footsteps of his older brother, August, joining the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Upon entering, he took the name Damien. His heart’s desire was to serve in the missions and he prayed daily, asking for the intercession of St. Francis Xavier (patron of the missions).
It wasn’t long before his prayer was answered, but perhaps not in the way that he expected. His older brother had been asked to serve in Hawaii, but was prevented from traveling after becoming ill with typhus. Damien received permission to accept the mission post on his brother’s behalf. He arrived in Honolulu in March of 1864 and was ordained a priest just two months later.
In the mid 1800’s, leprosy had become a pandemic in Hawaii and there was no known treatment or cure. Those who were afflicted were banned from all social contact. Consequently, those who contracted leprosy were seen as rejects and untouchables. In fear, the people pleaded with their king to do something about it. His response was to pass the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. This act segregated the healthy from the lepers by deporting all those infected to a settlement called Kalawao on the Island of Molokai. Here the lepers were left to die.
Damien’s mission had concerns that the lepers on Molokai would die without the spiritual aid and comfort of the church. While the Bishop wanted to send help, he did not want to order that any priests be sent to Molokai, because he knew it would mean almost certain death. Despite the serious risk, Damien and three other brothers volunteered to go, with Damien being the first to leave on May 10th, 1873.
Life With the Lepers
While the Bishop had organized these four volunteers to serve the lepers in three-month rotations, when Damien saw nearly a thousand lepers upon his arrival and more arriving by the boatload, he decided to stay there indefinitely. His Bishop honored his request to dedicate the rest of his life for the lepers.
Damien was no stranger to manual labor. He threw himself into any need that he saw. He did not shy away from cleaning wounds or amputating infected limbs. He also built houses, built a water pipeline, and buried the dead with a dignified burial. It is believed that he built over sixteen hundred coffins. While he cared for the physically sick, he did not forget about their spirit. As their loving and thoughtful spiritual father, he was known to celebrate feast days by putting on processions with music to accompany them.
A Friend and Foe
When we hear stories of heroic Saints, we often assume they must have been universally loved during their lives. However, at least in Saint Damien’s case, there were plenty of people who found something to complain about. He was well loved by those that he served, but could be short with others when they ignored his requests for more supplies. What caused most of the hatred towards Damien was the fame and recognition he was receiving for his selflessness and service to the lepers. His work was recognized internationally, causing jealousy among other mission groups and even the Board of Health, who made fun of him for it. Even priests grew in jealousy of Damien as his popularity grew.
But Damien would not allow humiliation to slow him down.
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A Legacy Left
Damien was indeed willing to die among the lepers, but not to throw caution to the wind. He took safety precautions to do what he could in order to prevent contracting the disease, knowing that the longer he stayed healthy, the longer he could best serve and love the sick. His diligence protected him for eleven years, until he did finally contract leprosy. During his illness he wrote to his bishops, telling them that the more advanced his disease became, the more he found himself content and happy. He credited this to the grace he received on the day of his vows.
Through the five years he would suffer with leprosy, his face was disfigured, his lungs became infected, and his hands and feet were covered with sores. Eventually the disease took his life at the age of forty-nine. He died on April 15th, 1889 and was buried under the same tree that he had slept beneath when he first arrived on Molokai. Today, his legacy lives on.
Honored in Our Nation’s Capitol
He is honored not only by the Church, but also as one of two Saints represented in the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol in Washington D.C. (the other being Saint Junipero Serra). The artist chosen for this important commission was Marisol Escobar, a woman known for her abstract and surrealist art. She designed the piece from a photo of Damien as he was suffering from leprosy. While the statue isn’t pretty, neither is the disease. Marisole herself admitted that her stout looking statue was ugly, for she chiseled Damien’s face with scars, carved his hands weathered, and showed his work shoes as clunky and heavy. But there he stands, steadfastly holding on to his guava cane which he made himself, bearing with grace the special cross that Jesus allowed him to carry.
Our Opportunities to Sacrifice
During Damien’s beatification homily, Pope Saint John Paul II recognizes Damien’s exceptional virtue in choosing to live life with the lepers. John Paul II challenges all of us to love selflessly as well, saying:
In your daily life, you are called to make choices that ‘occasionally demand uncommon sacrifices.’ This is the price of true happiness.
We are not lacking in opportunity. There are the homeless at the busy intersection, the elderly in the nursing homes, the vulnerable unborn, and the friend or family member who is hard to forgive.
What uncommon sacrifice is the Lord calling you to make? How is he asking you to restore another’s dignity and value?