Belgium and Hawaii
Joseph de Veuster was born into a farming family in Tremelo, Belgium, in 1840. He left school at the age of 13 to work on the family farm. When he was 20 years old, he joined the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, taking the name of ‘Damien’ after an early physician and martyr. Four years later he was sent on mission to the Hawaiian Islands, where he arrived in 1864. He was ordained a priest soon after.
In 1873, he went to the Hawaiian government’s leper colony on the island of Moloka’i, as part of a team of four chaplains that went there for three months each year. Almost a thousand lepers were quarantined on the island without any pastoral care or access to the Sacraments.
The island was known for its violence and lawlessness, because there was no civil society established among the lepers. Each had to work out their own survival, often at the expense of others.
When Damien arrived he immediately set about establishing community and social order. He renovated a dilapidated little wooden chapel and began celebrating mass, and in time the lepers on the island developed a care and concern for each other.
Damien volunteered to remain permanently on the island, caring for the people’s physical, medical and spiritual needs. In time, he became their most effective advocate to obtain promised government support.
Soon the settlement had new houses and a new church, school and orphanage. Morale improved considerably. A few years later he succeeded in getting the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, led by Mother Marianne Cope, to help serve the leper colony.
Damien contracted Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in 1885, saying it was “a short cut to heaven” and he carried on serving his parishioners for four more years until he died in 1889. He was only 49 years old. He was buried in Kalaupapa, but in 1936 the Belgian government succeeded in having his body moved to Belgium. Part of Damien’s body was returned to his beloved Hawaiian brothers and sisters after his beatification in 1995.
When Hawaii became a state in 1959, it selected Damien as one of its two representatives in the Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.
He was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.