H. Damien De Veuster, Father of the Lepers

(° 3 Jan. 1840 at Tremelo, † 15 Apr. 1889 at Molokai)

05-03-2022. Translation of the Dutch article of this section.

An article about Father Damien De Veuster ss.cc., is like kicking at open doors, because don’t we all know something about “the Hero of Molokai”, the Father of the Lepers, and haven’t we all seen some romanticized film adaptation of his life?

In advance, I would like to give a small justification for publishing this text: a few years ago, our public broadcaster organized the election for the most famous Belgian in a big show. In the end, a famous Fleming and a famous Walloon were chosen, how could it be otherwise.  Father Damien finished third on the French-speaking broadcaster. On the Flemish broadcaster it became Damien, and I remember the many arguments for voting for him, including the pleas of lawyer Jef Vermassen. I was happy and surprised that Flanders chose Damien, there were plenty of reasons for that. But what was missing from the debate are the deep backgrounds of this sacred life: vocation, priesthood, member of a missionary order, preaching, works of mercy, faithfulness and obedience to the Church, self-denial encouraged by the example of the Great Master, Christ. Hence this short account of a heroic and God-centered life of a saint “truly from us.”

Chronology:

Damien De Veuster was born in Ninde – Tremelo on 3 January 1840 as the seventh child in a farming family with eight brothers and sisters. From the age of fifteen he earned money for his family in his father’s enterprise, although he actually wanted to become a priest. He finally attended school at Braine-le-Comte and then joined in Leuven the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus-Paters, after the street in Paris where the order was founded: Rue de Picpus), as Brother Damien. It was prophesied on October 7, 1860.

He was allowed to work as a missionary in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace on March 19, 1864. At that time he already called himself a follower of Christ the High Priest. He first worked in the Puna district, later in various parishes on Oahu.  Leprosy had crept into Hawaii by Western sailors and soldiers, and because there was no treatment and the disease was considered highly contagious, the lepers from all over Hawaii were exiled to the island of Molokai.  Damien thought these outcasts needed a priest. He put himself forward as a candidate and obtained permission from his bishop to go to Molokai. He arrived there on May 10, 1876. At that time, 816 lepers lived on the isolated headland of Kalaupapa.  His first work was to build a church to celebrate Mass and serve as a center for his new parish. Later followed the construction of decent houses, the construction of roads, the construction of a dispensary, schools, a secluded house for the dying, a cemetery, and many other vital infrastructures works, to turn a disorderly community into a well-organized society. In the end, the parish of St. Filomena had two villages in which 800 to 1000 lepers lived. Within the relatively short period of Damien’s work (16 years) she had become a thriving center of Christianity.

In addition to being a priest, Damien was also a doctor, nurse, carpenter, mason, gravedigger, but above all an inspired shepherd for his community of lepers.

Father Damien became known in the world because at a given moment, he was appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua by David Kalakaua, the then king of Hawaii (then not yet a state of the USA). Princess Lydia Liliuokalani visited the settlement and informed the world, on the one hand of the roaring of the lepers and on the other hand of the formidable work of Father Damien. Protestants from the U.S. and Britain began providing grants and allowances; the Anglican Church joined in with shipments of food, medicine, and clothing. The many letters of Father Damien triggered a first kind of development aid.

The courage of this missionary was recognized by Protestant churches and associations rather than by his own order and the Catholic Church in Hawaii. When he himself appeared to be stricken with leprosy in 1884, some succeeded in accusing him of fornication, for wasn’t leprosy a side effect of syphilis?

In the meantime, Damien had received support from a few priests and four sisters. He continued to work among his leper brethren, and the disease really made him one of them after all: “We, lepers …”: this is how he spoke to his parishioners after he diagnosed his own contamination. He continued to work until fourteen days before his death on April 15, 1889.

Veneration, beatification and canonization:

  • In 1894, only four years after his death, a statue of Father Damien, by Constantin Meunier, was inaugurated in Leuven.
  • On 3 May 1936, the remains of Father Damien were brought ashore in Antwerp, after a voyage aboard the Belgian training ship Mercator. The missionary was given a grave in the crypt of the St. Joseph’s Church in Leuven.  His coffin was brought on foot in procession from Antwerp to Leuven under massive interest and in the presence of many political and religious authorities.
  • In 1938, the process of his beatification was started.
  • On July 7, 1977, Damien was declared venerable by Pope Paul VI.
  • The beatification in front of the National Basilica of Koekelberg by Pope John Paul II followed on June 4, 1995. His right hand was repatriated to Hawaii as a relic, and buried in Kalawao-Molokai on July 22, 1995.
  • The canonization took place on February 21, 2009 in Rome by Pope Benedict XVI. The canonization followed after Audrey Sigushi was declared cured of a metastatic lung cancer in 1998 at the intercession of Blessed Damien. At the canonization, the pope indicated that Damien had left his country to preach the gospel as a priest-missionary. His activities testify to an immense charity, with a great self-denial, in the knowledge that a stay between lepers then almost necessarily had to lead to falling ill and dying from it. He did all this in imitation of Christ and drew his strength from the daily Mass, confession, and his priesthood in fidelity to the Church, even if the latter did not always treat him with understanding during his life.
  • Damien was recognized by the Church as the patron saint of lepers and AIDS patients.

Little facts:

  • Damien De Veuster is the only non-American with a statue on the Capitol in Washington.
  • In Belgium he has statues in Leuven, Scherpenheuvel and Tremelo. A beautiful bas-relief can be found in the St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen.
  • Prof. Hilde Eynicken wrote a beautiful historical boek about the life of Father Damien.
  • Two feature films about Damien were made: “Le Pélerin de l’Enfer” in 1946 and “Molokaï, The Story of Father Damien” in 1999, with Peter O’Toole, Kris Kristoffersen and Jan Decleir, among others. Unfortunately, the project for a Flemish film directed by Stijn Coninx was never realized.

Conclusion:

Father Damien De Veuster ss.cc. was a priest and missionary. He was guided by his great High Priest, Christ, in his mission and work among the lepers. His humanity, his charity, his devotion to the cause of the lepers of Kalaupapa, his struggle for recognition of the leper colony, were of course “humanistic”.  For that he can be admired, because it makes him a great example as a human being.  But if one ignores his vocation, his faith, his faithfulness to his vows, and his priesthood, one does him an injustice, because everything he did departed from there. It permeated his entire life and molded him  into the heroic saint, whom we now honor and invoke. (*)

L.P.

(*) Ed. This is how all the saints lived: people like you and me, with their smaller and greater qualities, but perfecting themselves in the light of Christ. They did not live for pleasure, fame, or power, or to show off on a pedestal afterwards, but in the service of their fellow men and in obedience to our common Father. We also think with deep reverence of the many lesser-known and sometimes forgotten missionaries who have preached and lived the gospel worldwide in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. Their legacy is not only spiritual in nature, but also material. They left behind thriving church communities, ensured emancipation through education, introduced new techniques, etc.  With his heroic commitment to the lepers on a remote peninsula, Saint Damien was part of a continuous chain of Christian health care dating back to Christ himself, who healed lepers and other sick people in Palestine two thousand years ago. In our cities we still find the traces of the leprosies and other hospitals of the Middle Ages, in which religious selflessly, with the meager knowledge and resources of that time, took care of the sick. Father Damien’s material legacy was not limited to his parish on Molokai and the medical facilities there. He inspired others to continue his work, including through the well-known Damien Foundation, founded in Brussels in 1964, which fights leprosy and other diseases such as tuberculosis in 16 countries. See https://damienfoundation.be/  .

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