Damien de Veuster (“Father Damien”)

This is Chapter 24 of Christ’s Faithful Servants, copyright 2023

Chapter 24


(1840 – 1889)

And a man with leprosy came to Jesus, imploring Him and kneeling down, and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out with His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.”

—Mark 1:40-41

Leprosy. Leprosy is a skin disease caused by a bacterium known as mycobacterium leprae, which a Norwegian scientist named Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen discovered in 1873. The bacterium attacks the skin and nerves, primarily in the areas of the hands, feet, face, and eyes. The first symptom is skin discoloration, accompanied by loss of feeling in the discolored area. In severe cases, the disease can cause muscle weakness, paralysis, loss of fingers and toes, deformities, and blindness, and can attack organs such as lymph nodes, nose, testis, and kidneys. In addition, because persons with the disease cannot feel pain in the affected areas, they can suffer serious injuries or burns without being aware of it.

The bacterium spreads through tiny droplets from the nose or mouth, and the infection grows in the body very slowly. Symptoms usually do not appear for about five years. In most people, the body’s natural immune system suppresses the bacterium and the disease never develops. In some people, a relatively small number of bacteria will breed, causing mild symptoms—these people are called pauci-bacillary. A small number of infected people will develop multi-bacillary leprosy, in which large numbers of bacteria breed and cause severe symptoms.[1] Multi-bacillary leprosy is more contagious than pauci-bacillary leprosy.

Drugs to treat leprosy appeared as early as 1941, but a cure was not found until the late 1970s and early 1980s. This cure involves treatment with a combination of several prescription drugs,[2] known as Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT). MDT stops the disease’s progression and prevents its transmission to others. Recurrence after MDT is extremely rare. For these reasons, the disease has been eradicated in all but a few countries.            

Leprosy in the Bible. In biblical times—just as in more recent times before a cure was found—leprosy was a dreadful and dreaded disease.[3] Leviticus 13:42-46 required a person with leprosy to live outside the Israelite camp, wear torn clothes, uncover his head, and yell, “Unclean, unclean,” so that all would know he had the disease.[4] The Gospels tell at least two stories of Jesus curing leprosy. In one story, a leper asked Jesus to cure him. Jesus touched the man, and the leprosy was immediately gone.[5] The other story tells how Jesus cured ten lepers, only one of whom returned to thank him.[6] Jesus’ ability to cure leprosy was considered one of the proofs that he was the Christ,[7] and also one of the powers he gave to his disciples when he sent them out on their own.[8]

Kalaupapa Before Damien. Leprosy was unknown in Hawaii until 1835, when a woman on the island of Kauai was diagnosed with it. It was probably brought from China. The disease spread rapidly, and by 1863 it had become an epidemic. On January 3, 1865, King Kamehameha V signed into law “An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy,” authorizing the Hawaiian government to transport lepers to the Makanalua Peninsula on the island of Molokai,[9] a region known as Kalaupapa. The first group was deposited on the peninsula on January 6, 1866, and consisted of nine men and three women.

The Makanalua Peninsula is a ten-square-mile prominence on the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Molokai. This triangular peninsula is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean to the east, north, and west, and is effectively cut off from the rest of the island to the south by cliffs which are 1,700 feet tall and very steep.[10] In 1866, when the first lepers arrived, the peninsula lacked even the most basic comforts of civilization. The lepers lived in caves or whatever they could construct with the materials at hand. Sometimes new arrivals were pushed overboard and forced to swim ashore. Supplies were often cast into the sea and allowed to drift toward the island. The lives of these unfortunate victims began to change for the better when Father Damien arrived on May 10, 1873.

Damien Before Kalaupapa. Joseph de Veuster was born in Tremeloo, Belgium on January 3, 1840. He was the seventh of eight children born to Frans de Veuster, a farmer, and his wife, Anne-Catherine. Joseph’s older brother, Auguste, joined the monks of the Sacred Hearts community[11] in Louvain, Belgium, and took the name, “Pamphile.” On February 2, 1858, at age nineteen, Joseph followed his brother into the Sacred Hearts and took the name, “Damien.” He was a large man, and some of his fellow monks considered him too dumb to become a priest because he didn’t know Latin. But with the help of his brother, Damien taught himself Latin, and was accepted for priestly training.

When illness prevented Pamphile from traveling to the Hawaiian Islands as a missionary, Damien volunteered to take his place. He arrived on March 19, 1864, and was ordained as a priest in Honolulu two months later. The Church assigned him to the youngest, largest, and southernmost of the islands, Hawaii, known as the “Big Island.” He served there for about nine years, traveling extensively around the island and learning the Hawaiian language. In 1873, he volunteered to serve the lepers at Kalaupapa. He was thirty-three years old.

Labors on Molokai. Damien encountered a tragic situation when he arrived at Kalaupapa. About 600 lepers lived there, with no law and no government. One of the signs greeting new arrivals read: Aole Kanawai me Keia wahi—“In this place we have no law.” The Hawaiian government provided minimal food and clothing, and no medical care. A few volunteers ran a medical clinic, with little support from the outside world.

Perhaps most distressing was the sight of the ill-clad, haggard, deformed, and neglected men, women, and children of Kalaupapa. Damien found people with missing fingers or feet, people who had sores which oozed pus, people who were disfigured in face and/or body, and people with wounds that were severely infected or infested with worms. Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous writer,[12] who visited Kalaupapa not long after Damien’s death, described it as “a pitiful place to visit and a hell to dwell in.” When Damien arrived, it must have been far worse.

One of Damien’s first actions was to bury the dead bodies he found, building coffins with his own hands. However, he also helped the living. He provided religious guidance and religious services, of course. But he also gathered the young people into an orphanage, to prevent them from being abused and neglected by the older lepers. He used the medicines and bandages he had to try to relieve some of the suffering he saw all around. He built houses, a church, a hospital, and other buildings, either by himself or with the help of some of the more able-bodied residents.

Most important, he reached out to the people of Kalaupapa in love. Like Jesus, Damien was willing to touch them. He welcomed them into his home, and let some live there. He invented games they could play. And he held celebrations to lift everyone’s spirits, which usually included horseback riding—something many of the lepers could still enjoy.

He was a soft-spoken man, and probably not a natural leader. When he served briefly as a Luna, or overseer, of the Kalaupapa community, he found that he was unable to command obedience. Before long his life was threatened, and he resigned. But he was no pushover. He frequently badgered the Hawaiian Board of Health to provide greater assistance to the lepers. When he traveled to Honolulu for supplies, he often pushed a cart through the streets, begging for what he needed.

He had a generous and forgiving spirit, and did not easily take offense. Yet he sometimes spoke with a bluntness and forcefulness that some found offensive. He was accused of showing favoritism to Catholics over Protestants—a charge that contained some truth, especially in the beginning, although he later realized his error and changed his ways. He was also accused of making Protestants into Catholics, and at this he was indeed very successful—perhaps because the Protestants sent no one to help the people of Kalaupapa. For a long time the Catholics sent no one else to help Damien. He went to confessional by shouting to a priest on a ship. When help was sent—in the form of the Dutch Father Andre Burgerman and the French Father Albert Montiton—these “helpers” and Damien did not get along, so they were removed.

Damien’s efforts brought attention and publicity to the lepers, which eventually brought money and assistance. Princess Liliuokalani visited Kaluapapa in September 1881 and was deeply moved by the suffering she saw there. In 1886, Ira Barnes “Joseph” Dutton, a priest and Civil War veteran, arrived to help. Another helper was Father Conrady, who wrote letters to the newspapers about the plight of the Molokai lepers, prompting priests to volunteer for duty with Father Damien. Four were allowed to come. In about 1889, Damien was joined by the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, led by Mother Marianne Kope. He welcomed the help, because by then he knew that he was dying.

Sickness and Death. Damien had first seen the symptoms of leprosy on his own body in about 1882 or 1883, when he noticed red spots on his skin and began to sense a loss of feeling in his left foot. The disease soon spread, and in 1885 the diagnosis was confirmed. He gradually lost strength, but he continued to work as long as he could. On March 23, 1889, severely disabled, Damien was confined to bed. He died at Kaluapapa on April 15, 1889, at age forty-nine. He was buried on Molokai, but his remains were moved to Louvain, Belgium in 1936. The Roman Catholic Church made Father Damien a saint on October 11, 2009.

Questions to Ponder or Discuss: What is our duty as Christians toward people who contract terrible and/or fatal diseases? In the case of diseases which are contagious, to what extent does our duty extend to risking our own lives?

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[1]. People with one to five skin patches are considered pauci-bacillary, while more than five skin patches results in a diagnosis of multi-bacillary leprosy.

[2]. The specific drugs are dapsone, rifampicin, and clofazimine.

[3]. Leprosy was part of the curse pronounced by David upon Joab and his family in 2 Samuel 3:29. Miriam, Moses’ sister, was punished with leprosy for seven days for speaking against Moses. (Numbers 12:1-15.) Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, was similarly punished with leprosy for seeking to profit from the miraculous curing of Naaman’s leprosy. (2 Kings 5) Uzziah, King of Judah, was punished with leprosy because he tried to usurp the role of the priests, and had to live in a separate house the rest of his life. (2 Kings 15:5 and 2 Chronicles 26:16-21)

[4]. Numbers 5:2 contains a similar requirement.

[5]. See Matthew 8:2-4, Mark 1:40-42, and Luke 5:12-14.

[6]. Luke 17:12-19

[7]. Matthew 11:5 and Luke 7:22

[8]. Matthew 10:8

[9]. Molokai is a long, narrow island which runs almost 40 miles from east to west, but is only 6 – 9 miles wide from north to south. Molokai is located in the middle of the Hawaiian Island chain, between Oahu and Maui. The Makanalua Peninsula juts out along the northern shore of Molokai, about halfway along its length.

[10]. Even today, you can only reach the Makanalua Peninsula in one of three ways: (1) by mule trail down the cliffs, (2) by boat, or (3) by air to a small airstrip. No roads lead into the peninsula from the rest of Molokai.

[11]. The full name is: Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

[12]. Stevenson lived from 1850 to 1894. Among his works are Treasure Island, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped.