The Life of Saint Damien of Molokai
The Patron Saint of Hawaii
Saint Damien of Molokai was a Catholic priest from Belgium as well as a Christian missionary in Hawaii, who lived and died in the 19th Century.
Saint Damien won a reputation for his ministry to people suffering from leprosy, who were placed under medical quarantine on the Island of Molokai in Hawaii.
Saint Damien’s Formative Years
Saint Damien was born Jozef de Veuster, on January 3, 1840, to a Flemish corn merchant in the village of Tremlo.
He went to college in Braine-le-Comte and then became a novitiate with the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, taking the name Brother Damianus, in reference to St. Damien, an early Christian saint who was known for performing miracles.
Saint Damien sought to become an ordered priest, like his brother Auguste. However, he was not sufficiently educated for this. Nevertheless, he was considered very intelligent by his superiors and in 1864, he was sent to Hawaii to serve as a missionary.
Saint Damien’s Ministry in Hawaii
When he arrived in Honolulu, in March, 1864, Damien found Hawaii in the middle of a public health crisis. Sailors had brought diseases from Europe and North America that native Hawaiians had no immunity to. Of particular concern was leprosy. At the time, leprosy was thought to be both incurable and highly contagious. In 1865, the Hawaiian Government passed measures calling for the relocation of leprosy patients to the Island of Molokai.
There the Hawaiian Government built a village, provided food and supplies for growing crops. However, the degenerative nature of leprosy made this almost impossible and the village soon fell into disrepair.
Around the same time Bishop Louis Desire Maigret believed that the lepers on Molokai needed a priest to see to their physical and spiritual needs and called for volunteers. Saint Damien was one of four priests who volunteered and took turns tending to the Lepers on Molokai. He arrived on Molokai on May 10, 1873.
Father Damien’s arrival is generally seen as the turning point for Hawaii’s leper colony. He ensured the enforcement of basic laws, made the homes of the colony’s residents more liveable, organized farms, built schools, chapels, and even coffins. Saint Damien would stay on Molokai for 16 years.
By 1884, Father Damien had contracted leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, and was dying. In spite of this, he continued to build homes and schools, as well as plan for the continuation of the programs he had started, after his death. Father Damien died on April 15, 1889.
The Canonization of Father Damien
In 1977, Father Damien was declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI, and then Blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1995. The case for Father Damien’s canonization was then referred to the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Disciples of the Sacrament, who then placed him on the Church’s liturgical calendar as an optional memorial.
In April, 2008, the Vatican accepted the required two miracles as evidence of Father Damien’s sanctity. In February, 2009 it was announced that he would be canonized as Saint Damien of Molokai, the patron saint of Hawaii, and an intercessor for lepers, AIDS patients, and outcasts. He was canonized on Rosary Sunday, October 11, 2009.
Daws, Gavan (1984). Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai. Honolulu: Eynikel, Hilde (1999). Molokai: the Story of Father Damien. Staten Island: Alba House.
Stewart, Richard (2000). Leper Priest of Moloka’i. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press