Blessed Damien of Molokai
Priest (1840 -1889)
"I have brought you one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that for your welfare and for the sake of your immortal souls he does not hesitate to become one of you, to live and die with you." It was with these words that, in May 1873, Bishop Louis Maigret, introduced the enthusiastic young missionary, Fr Damien de Veuster, a fellow-member of the Sacred Heart Congregation, to the lepers at Molokai—words that were to prove prophetic, for Damien’s arrival on the island at the age of 33 changed forever the world's view of the dreaded disease, giving it as it did a new, human dimension, hitherto unheard of.
So horrified was Damien at what he saw that he single- handedly went about caring for the lepers as nurse, surgeon, counsellor, comforter, builder — he built new houses, a new church, a new school and an orphanage - coffin-maker and grave-digger all rolled in one. A sagging morale was revived and further boosted when he succeeded in getting the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, led by Mother Marianne Kope, to help staff the fast expanding colony. He was also instrumental in obtaining long-pending government support.
Ironically, the very disease Damien tried to fight in others, found him easy prey by the year 1885; news of his illness brought him messages of genuine concern and grief by the thousand, from royalty and commoner alike. Damien, however, delighted in sharing so closely in the illness of his fellowmen for the sake of God's love. Indeed, in spite of his own predicament, he gave of himself unceasingly, working tirelessly right up to the last, even begging frantically, determined to ensure all benefits possible for the victims of leprosy at Molokai. And the results were there for all to see! It was eventually on 15 April 1889 that Damien, "like a child, with a smile on his face", breathed his last, aged barely 49. By then, he had come to be hailed as the "Hero of Molokai".
Christened Joseph at his birth on 3 January 1840 in Tremeloo, Belgium, Damien was ordained Priest in May 1864 in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu and worked for 8 years as a missionary in Hawaii before volunteering to go to Molokai. His work at Molokai did not go unnoticed in the civil world of his time. In September 1881, the acting Queen of Hawaii, Princess Liliuokalani visited the settlement with a view to delivering a public address there. So overwhelmed was she with the suffering she encountered that she wept bitterly instead of speaking. Her Majesty later invested Damien with the Order of Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakua.
The mortal remains of this great angel of mercy were initially laid to rest beside the church in Molokai, near his favourite pendanus tree. In 1936, the Belgian government succeeded in having them moved out of their island grave to his homeland where his own brethren could honour him suitably. It is edifying to note that the King of Belgium Leopold III himself led his people in doing the honours. A portion of the remains was, however, returned to his Hawaiian brethren as a goodwill gesture, after he was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 4 June 1995.
Reflection :"To love others as oneself means: to wish that others have the good the Lord has given us, that they may have the good we already enjoy with regard to time and eternity. We have to wish for their human and temporal good: that they be healthy and be healed of their diseases" (Blessed James Alberione).