Father Damien

From Academic Kids

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Father Damien is the patron of lepers, outcasts, those with HIV/AIDS and the State of Hawaii. Having been beatified in 1995, Father Damien is awaiting formal approval for sainthood.

Father Damien, formally Joseph de Veuster, ss.cc. and Blessed Damien of Molokai (January 3, 1840 - April 15, 1889), was a Roman Catholic missionary of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who is revered primarily by Hawaii residents and Christians for having dedicated his life in service to the lepers of Molokai in the Kingdom of Hawaii. In Catholicism, Father Damien is the spiritual patron of people with leprosy, outcasts, and those with HIV/AIDS, and of the State of Hawaii. Father Damien Day is recognized each year in Hawaii on April 15. His Feast Day in the Catholic Church is May 10.

The Father Damien Statue memorializes the priest in bronze at the United States Capitol. A full size replica stands in front of the Hawaii State Legislature. In 1995, Pope John Paul II beatified him and bestowed the official title of Blessed Damien of Molokai.


Birth in Belgium

Blessed Damien was born to a farming couple in Tremeloo, Belgium. He attended college at Braine-le-Comte, then entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, taking the name of Damien in his first vows. Following in his brother's footsteps, Damien became a Picpus Brother on October 7, 1860. His brother could not fulfill his dream of travelling overseas to actively participate in missionary work. Damien took up his brother's dream as his own and went in his place on a mission abroad.

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Birth place

Mission to Hawaii

On March 19, 1864, Damien landed at Honolulu Harbor in downtown Honolulu as a missionary. There, Damien was ordained to the priesthood on May 24, 1864 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, a church established by his religious order. He served at several parishes on the island of Oahu just as the kingdom faced a public health crisis.

Native Hawaiians became afflicted by diseases inadvertently introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by foreign traders and sailors. Thousands died of influenza, syphilis and other ailments which had never before affected Hawaiians. This included the plight of leprosy, today called Hansen's disease. Fearful of its spread, King Kamehameha IV segregated the lepers of the kingdom and moved them to a settlement colony on the north side of the island of Molokai. The Royal Board of Health provided them with supplies and food but did not yet have the resources to offer proper healthcare. Damien believed that the lepers at the very least needed a priest. Though aware that his mission could potentially be a death sentence, Damien asked Bishop Louis Maigret, ss.cc. for permission to go to Molokai.

Colony of Death

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Father Damien, seen here with the Kalawao Girls Choir during the 1870s, took on the role of priest and doctor to lepers in settlement colonies.

On May 10, 1873, Damien arrived at the secluded settlement at Kalaupapa. Bishop Maigret presented Damien to the colonists as "one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you." The settlement was surrounded by an impregnable mountain ridge. There were six hundred lepers living at Kalaupapa. Damien's first course of action was to build a church and establish the Parish of Saint Philomena.

University of Hawaii System historians working with the Hawaii Catholic Church to archive its history agree that Damien was the only one in a position to provide comfort for the people of Kalaupapa. His role was not limited to being a priest; he took on the role of doctor as well. He dressed ulcers, built homes and beds. Damien even built coffins and dug graves.

Sociologists argued before the Roman Curia in proceedings for sainthood that Damien was sent to a morally deprived, lawless "colony of death" where people were forced to fight each other to survive. The kingdom didn't plan the settlement to be in such disarray but the government's neglect in providing much needed resources and medical help created the chaos. Damien's arrival is seen as a turning point for the community. Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks became painted houses, working farms were organized and schools were erected.

Order of Kalakaua

King David Kalakaua bestowed on Damien the honor Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua. When Princess Lydia Liliuokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she was reported as having been too distraught and heartbroken to read her speech. The princess shared her experience with the world and publicly acclaimed Damien's efforts. Consequently, Damien's name was spread across the United States and Europe. American Protestants raised large sums of money for the missionary. The Church of England sent food, medicine, clothing and supplies. It is believed that Damien never wore the medal given to him.


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Father Damien died on April 15, 1889. This photograph shows Mother Marianne Cope standing beside his body.

As indicated in diaries, in December 1884 Damien went about his evening ritual of soaking his feet in boiling water. He could not feel the heat: he had contracted leprosy. Despite the discovery, residents claim that Damien worked vigorously to build as many homes as he could and planned for the continuation of the programs he created after he was gone.

With the flurry of activity, four strangers came to Kalaupapa in search of Damien to help the ailing missionary. Louis Lambert Conrardy was a Belgian priest. Mother Marianne Cope was Superior of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse from Syracuse, New York. Joseph Dutton was an American Civil War soldier who left behind a marriage broken because of alcoholism. James Sinnett was a nurse from Chicago, Illinois. Conrardy took up pastoral duties while Cope organized a working hospital. Dutton attended to the construction and maintenance of the community's buildings. Sinnett nursed Damien in the last phases of the disease, closing his eyes upon his death.


Upon his death, a global discussion arose as to the mysteries of Damien's life and his work on the island of Molokai. Much criticism came especially out of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in Hawaii. It has been argued for decades that these church leaders took a stance against Damien merely out of spite for Catholicism in general. They derided Damien as a "false shepherd" who was driven by personal ambition and ego. The most famous treatise published against Damien was by a Honolulu Presbyterian, Reverend C. M. Hyde, in a letter dated August 2, 1889 to a fellow pastor, Reverend H. B. Gage. Reverend Hyde wrote:

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Following Father Damien's death the lepers of Molokai gathered around his grave in mourning.
In answer to your inquiries about Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, head-strong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life. [1] (http://praiseofglory.com/rlsdamien.htm)

Having read the letter, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, also a Presbyterian, drafted an equally famous treatise as a rebuttal in defense of Damien and derided Reverend Hyde for creating gossip to support his blatant anti-Catholic agenda. On October 26, 1889, Stevenson wrote:

When we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour — the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost for ever. [2] (http://praiseofglory.com/rlsdamien.htm)

In addition to calling Reverend Hyde a "crank", Stevenson answered the charge that Damien was "not sent to Molokai but went there without orders" by arguing that:

Is this a misreading? or do you really mean the words for blame? I have heard Christ, in the pulpits of our Church, held up for imitation on the ground that His sacrifice was voluntary. Does Dr. Hyde think otherwise? [3] (http://praiseofglory.com/rlsdamien.htm)

In the process of examining Damien's fitness for beatification and canonization, the Roman Curia pored over a great deal of documentation of published and unpublished criticisms against the missionary's life and work. Diaries and interviews were scoured and debated. In the end it was found that what Stevenson called "heroism" was indeed genuine.

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi offered his own defense of Damien's life and work. Gandhi claimed Damien to have been an inspiration for his social campaigns in India that led to the freedom of his people and secured aid for those that needed it. Gandhi wrote, "The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Moloka'i. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism."


On June 4, 1995, Pope John Paul II beatified Blessed Damien and gave him his official spiritual title. On December 20, 1999, Jorge Cardinal Medina Estvez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, confirmed the November 1999 decision of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to place Blessed Damien on the liturgical calendar with the rank of optional memorial. His official Feast Day is on May 10 of each year. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu is currently awaiting findings by the Vatican as to the authenticity of several miracles attributed to Damien. Upon confirmation that those miracles are genuine, Blessed Damien could then be canonized and receive the title of Saint Damien of Molokai.

In Blessed Damien's role as patron of those with HIV and AIDS, the world's only Roman Catholic memorial chapel to those who have died of this disease, at the glise Saint-Pierre-Aptre in Montreal, is consecrated to him.


After the beatification of Blessed Damien, Belgian film producer Tharsi Vanhuysse was inspired to lead a project honoring the famous priest. Vanhuysse teamed with film producer Grietje Lammertyn of ERA Films and searched for screenwriter, director and unknown actors. Australian David Wenham was chosen to play the lead. Another Australian, Paul Cox, was selected to direct the project. Previously, he had completed an independent movie about the artist Vincent van Gogh. American John Briley wrote the screenplay. Briley was an Academy Award winner for writing the screenplay for Gandhi. He also worked on the movie, Cry Freedom. Other actors in the movie entitled Molokai: The Story of Father Damien include Derek Jacobi, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Neill, Tom Wilkinson, Peter O'Toole and David Wenham. The movie was released on March 17, 2000.


  • Gavan Daws, Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai, University of Hawai'i Press, 1994.
  • Hilde Eynikel, Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, Alba House: 1999.
  • Richard Stewart, Leper Priest of Moloka'i: The Father Damien Story, University of Hawai'i Press: 2001.

External links

nl:Pater Damiaan no:Damian de Veuster pl:Ojciec Damian


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