This is my summary and reflection upon the life of Fr. Damien based upon the biographies Damien the Leper by John Farrow and Leper Priest of Molokai by Richard Stewart.
Joseph De Veuster grew up listening to stories about the lives of the saints, also called hagiography. St. Damien was a healer, and a martyr, of the Early Christian Church. He helped all who needed medical attention along with his brother, St. Cosmas, treated people without accepting money. Father Damien chose this name upon his ordination to the priesthood and volunteered to replace his brother as a missionary priest in Hawaii. He, too, offered free treatment to those others would not treat.
On the island of Puna he built chapels and made long tours visiting his far flung congregation. He built churches, dipped his fingers into the pots of poi (cooked roots) in Hawaiian fashion, and ministered as a priest to his far flung flock. He also studied medicine in part because the Kahunas, or shamans, whose religion (including human sacrifice) had been banned by the Hawaiian Monarchy, provided medical treatment to those far off from regular doctors. The son of Belgian farmers, a man who learned through the kindness of his brother and hard work, became father, brother, builder, advocate, nurse, carpenter, and friend to thousands of lepers; people living in a region surrounded by Cliff and sea on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
The Roman Catholic lepers, segregated on Molokai to protect the rest of the population from the disease, asked Bishop Maigrait for a priest to minister to them. Fr. Damien volunteered to serve them, he slept under a palm tree as a precaution admonished by his bishop to prevent him from getting leprosy on the night of May 10th in the year 1873 A.D. When he first arrived by ship he found a people in despair, living in something dangerously near Hell on earth. The sicker lepers had to beg for clean water to drink from the stream over a mile distant from the settlement, their clothing: rags, their houses: crude huts, their graves: shallow scratches in the earth watched over by wild pigs and dogs waiting to tear up their bodies and eat them. The “hospital” was a place for a leper to die unattended by Nurse or Doctor and most likely completely alone. He bent down to listen to their confessions. He felt a burning, a tingling, sensation in his lower legs and face when he did this. Leprosy is spread by the breath.
How did these people appear whose wounds he bandaged, whose confessions he heard, whom he comforted, with whom he worked? Richard Stewart, a professor at a medical college and the author of a well-documented biography on Fr. Damien published by the University of Hawaii Press (2002) wrote this about what Fr. Damien endured in the suffering lepers: “open wounds filled with bloodstained cellular debris, hands with fingers contracted into the shape of a claw that could no longer pick up a cup, and bodies that had lost fingers, eyes, toes, and feet. The faces of the patients were so swollen and grotesquely puffy as to make their owners unrecognizable… In the absence of doctors and nurses these women were being killed by diarrhea, malnutrition, and fevers of many causes.” Women were forced into prostitution and then cast out when disfigured by the leprosy. Drunken orgies were common. There was no allowance for clothing.
In addition to his duties as a priest for the Roman Catholics (including building a better, larger church for them), Fr. Damien showed real charity to all of the inhabitants of Molokai who accepted his help (He reasoned that people would be in a real position to contemplate God better if they were not in constant pain and fear, according to Stewart): He built wooden coffins to preserve their bodies from the wild beasts, he petitioned and got enough pipe to bring fresh water into the settlement, he helped the lepers rebuild their old huts ruined by a storm with stronger wooden buildings, he dug graves for them, he cleaned and bandaged the wounds of sick lepers, he got them a clothing allowance from the Hawaiian board of health, he got them more and better food, he shattered a still producing poisonous alcohol barely fit for drinking, he advocated for a physician and nurses, and he eventually set up orphanages for leper boys and girls which saved many of the girls from sex-slavery.
Even more than these Fr. Damien treated the lepers like people: he visited them, spoke with them, did not show disgust at their condition, and treated the lepers in a way befitting human beings made in the image and likeness of God (imago Dei).He gave them hope. He helped increase the average life-span of lepers on Molokai by several years. He trusted them and earned the trust even of the Protestants and pagans there. He showed them love by sacrificing his health and life to lead them in worship, in song, and by his example of selflessly aiding all the lepers around him. He became a savior, a hero, to the people left on Molokai. He did not seek hero-worship, or adulation, in return for his sacrifice. His own words, following at least one press release by a man named Gibson praising his (Fr. Damien’s) efforts: “They are talking about me in the papers. It would be better if they kept quiet. Things here are much more serious than any esteem they might give me.”Mother Marianne Cope, a nun of the Sisters of St. Francis and a one time resident of Syracuse, N.Y. eventually came thanks in large part to his urgent and tireless requests to staff the hospital and provide care for the lepers approaching death. He ate with the lepers. He worshiped with them. He started Mass “We lepers….” He died with them.