In October, 1885, Damien wrote his superior, Father Leonor Fouesnel, in the Hawaiian Islands: "I am a leper. Blessed be the good God. I only ask one favor of you. Send someone to this tomb to be my confessor." (This was three years before Conrardy's arrival.) He wrote his General in Rome, "I have been decorated by the royal Cross of Kalakaua and now the heavier and less honorable cross of leprosy. Our Lord has willed that I be stigmatized with it.... I am still up and taking care of myself a little. I will keep on working...."
The announcement that Damien had leprosy hit his own religious superiors, Father Fouesnel and his bishop, Hermann Koeckemann, like a thunderbolt. Damien was the third Sacred Hearts missionary stricken with leprosy. To prevent further infection, Father Fouesnel forbade Damien to visit the mission headquarters of the Sacred Hearts Fathers in Honolulu. "If you come," Father Superior advised Damien, "you will be relegated to a room which you are not to leave until your departure." Father Fouesnel suggested that if Damien insisted on coming to Honolulu, he stay at the Franciscan Sisters' leper hospital. "But if you go there," the superior counseled, "please do not say Mass. For neither Father Clement nor I will consent to celebrate Mass with the same chalice and the same vestments you have used. The Sisters will refuse to receive Holy Communion from your hands." One can understand the superior's concern. But Damien was being forced, nevertheless, to consume the bitter wine of loneliness to its dregs. He now knew not only the physical sufferings of Christ but the harrowing loneliness and abandonment of his Savior. Damien did go to Honolulu and remained at the leprosarium from July 10 to 16. It was during the time that he arranged with Mother Marianne to come to Molokai. He spoke of his rejection by his own as "the greatest suffering he had ever endured in his life."
The Sorrowful Mother
Catherine De Veuster, Damien's mother, had lived all these years on the occasional letters he wrote to her from Molokai. He had tried to keep her from the news of his leprosy. But inevitably she found out. Someone advised her that the newspapers said, "the flesh of the leper priest of Molokai was falling off in hunks." It was too much for Catherine. Now eighty-three years of age, a widow for thirteen years, the shock of the sufferings of her son broke her old heart. On April 5, 1886, about four in the afternoon, turning her eyes for the last time toward the image of the Blessed Mother and the picture of her son, she bowed her head in that direction and died calmly and peacefully.
Doctor Mouritz, medical attendant at Molokai, charted the progress of the physical dissolution of Damien's body. He writes: "The skin of the abdomen, chest, the back, are beginning to show tubercles, masses of infiltration.... The membranes of the nose, roof of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx are involved; the skin of his cheeks, nose, lips, forehead, and chin are excessively swollen.... His body is becoming emaciated."
An ever-deepening mental distress accompanied Damien's physical dissolution. A severe depression, as well as religious scruples, now plagued the leper priest. Damien felt he was unworthy of heaven. The rejection by his religious superiors left him in near disarray. Once he claimed: "From the rest of the world I received gold and frankincense, but from my own superiors myrrh" (a bitter herb). His superiors complained about Father Conrardy's presence on Molokai. Conrardy was not a religious of the Sacred Hearts, and they felt that Damien had encouraged his presence there as a reproach to their ineffectual efforts to provide him with a companion. Soon after Damien's death, the Sacred Hearts superiors maneuvered Father Conrardy out of the colony.
As death approached, Father Damien engaged in a flurry of activity. He worked as much as his wounded and broken body would permit him. He wrote his bishop, entreating not to be dispensed from the obligation of the Breviary, which he continued to recite as best he could as his eyes failed. The disease invading his windpipe progressed to such an extent that it kept him from sleeping more than an hour or two at night. His voice was reduced to a raucous whisper. Leprosy was in his throat, his lungs, his stomach, and his intestines. After ravaging his body outwardly, it was now destroying him from within.
As the end drew near, there were priests of his own Congregation to hear his confession. They had come with the Franciscan Sisters. On March 30, one of them, a Father Moellers, heard Damien's last confession. The leper priest had requested a funeral pall, which the Sisters made from him and delivered from Honolulu. It arrived the same day. Two more weeks of suffering, and on April 15, 1889, Damien died. It was Holy Week. Some weeks before, Damien had said that the Lord wanted him to spend Easter in heaven.
Once he had written, "The cemetery, the church and rectory form one enclosure; thus at nighttime I am still keeper of this garden of the dead, where my spiritual children lie at rest. My greatest pleasure is to go there to say my by beads and meditate on that unending happiness which so many of them are enjoying." And now it was his turn to occupy a little plot of ground in "his garden of the dead."
He no longer meditated on that unending happiness, but now most surely possessed it. Long ago he had selected the precise spot for his grave amid the two thousand lepers buried in Molokai cemetery. Coffin bearers laid him to rest under his pandanus tree. It was the same tree that had sheltered him the day he read those fateful words: "You may stay as long as your devotion dictates...."
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