This year, the feast takes on new significance as it is marks the first celebration of the former blessed’s feast since his October 11, 2009 canonization.
Damien de Veuster was born in Belgium to a poor farming family. Answering God’s call, he joined the Fathers of the Sacred Heart, and spent the rest of his life as a missionary in Hawaii. After being ordained in 1864, Fr. Damien was sent to the peninsula of Kalawao on Molokai, an isolated area of the Hawaiian island where the panicked government of the time quarantined people suspected of having leprosy. Arriving in 1873, he lived on the island for the rest of his life, dying in 1889 of the very disease whose suffering he sought to alleviate in others.
Fr. Damien dedicated his life to the native Hawaiians he found suffering in exile on Molokai. When he arrived, there were very few structures in the area. Many people slept on mats, covered by only a thin blanket as protection against the rain. Though there was a small, preexisting chapel, dedicated to St. Philomena, Fr. Damien set up his first rectory in the shade of a tree. However, he was a skilled carpenter and a hard worker. Quickly, he worked to build coffins, a rectory, houses, a school, and eventually a new chapel for the community.
Fr. Damien ministered to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His primary aim was to restore dignity to the people who had been robbed of everything through no fault of their own. Thus, one of his first accomplishments was to build a fence around, and clean up, the cemetery. Then, by building coffins and encouraging the creation of a Christian Burial Society, Fr. Damien gave dignity to the leprosy victims.
Children were especially close to the Belgian missionary’s heart. As was the law of the time, families were split up, and often children with leprosy were sent to Molokai while their parents were forced to remain at home. Fr. Damien set up a dormitory for boys, and eventually one for girls as well. He worked hard to keep the children away from the depravity that had become commonplace in the rather lawless society that had sprung up on Molokai. The children became so devoted to him that they wrote a song in their native Hawaiian, calling him their father, which they used to stand outside his house and sing.
Fr. Damien also worked tirelessly to bring in outside supplies and funding. The Hawaiian government considered him to be a stubborn nuisance as he sent letter after letter petitioning for food and building materials. He also wrote to his superiors and the local bishop to increase awareness of the conditions, sufferings, and needs of the people to whom he ministered.
Ultimately, Fr. Damien contracted leprosy himself. However, he did not allow it to put an end to his ministry. As frustrating as the situation may have been at times, he never lost hope and continued to think of the people, who he made his own. He died on March 28, 1889 and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009.
Every schoolchild in Hawaii is familiar with his story.
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