10 May: Feast of Saint Damien of Molokai. Joseph de Veuser, who took the religious name Damien, was born into a large Belgian farming family in 1840. During his youth he felt called to become a Catholic missionary. He joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. His superiors planned to send Damien’s brother, a member of the same congregation, to Hawaii. But he became sick, and Damien arranged to take his place. Brother Damien arrived in Honolulu in 1864 and was ordained a priest the same year. Nine years later, Father Damien responded to his bishop’s call for priests to serve on the leper colony of Molokai. The island was a wasteland, where quarantined lepers faced hopeless conditions and extreme deprivation. Father Damien volunteered to go. Upon arrival, he found the colony in disarray. Anarchy reigned; patients were not cared for; every kind of immorality was on display. There was no law or order. Fr. Damien provided leadership. Where other missionaries had kept lepers at arms’ length, Fr. Damien instead immersed himself in their life and showed God’s love. He had them come together to build houses, schools and eventually the parish church, St. Philomena. The church still stands today. The sick were cared for and the dead buried. Order and routine made the colony livable. Fr. Damien personally provided much of the care the people needed. Fr. Damien’s work helped to raise the lepers up from their physical sufferings, while also making them aware of their worth as beloved children of God. Although he could not take away suffering, he could change its meaning as a redemptive path toward eternal life. Fr. Damien was supposed to be replaced by another volunteer. However, he grew attached to the people and his work. He asked permission to permanently stay at the colony to serve. His request was granted. Fr. Damien drew strength from Eucharistic adoration and the celebration of the Mass, but longed for another priest so that he could receive the sacrament of confession. In December 1884, Fr. Damien lost all feeling in his feet. It was an early, but unmistakable sign that he had contracted leprosy. He continued his work, despite the illness slowing taking over his body. He often spent time in the presence of the Eucharist: “It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength we need in our isolation,” he wrote. The disease eventually robbed him of his eyesight, speech and mobility. In the end, priests of his congregation arrived to administer last sacraments to the dying priest. Father Damien died during Holy Week, on April 15, 1889, after spending sixteen years working on the colony. He was beatified in 1995 and canonized in 2009. He is the patron saint of people with leprosy.
(His feast day is an unusual date selection. It is customary for a saint’s feast to be the date that he enters into eternal life. However, April 15 often falls during Lent when the church does not celebrate optional memorials. Thus, May 10 was picked: it marks the day on which Damien performed a particular act of supreme charity and selflessness that would ultimately lead to his canonization. May 10 was the date in 1873 that he first stepped onto the island of Molokai.)
Ideas for celebrating this feast at home:
- In St. Damien’s honor, host a family luau, complete with a Hawaiian feast! Food ideas: Hawaiian chicken or Hawaiian meatballs, Hawaiian rolls, potato-mac salad, fresh pineapple or mango salsa, pineapple rice. Or, make a slow cooker kalua pig! For dessert, serve a Hawaiian wedding cake or a Hawaiian Haupia.
- Listen to an audio book about St. Damien on FORMED: The Spirit of Father Damien by Jan de Volder
- Watch a movie about his life, available on Amazon prime: Molokai – the Story of Father Damien
- Who is a “leper” in your community? (an ‘outcast’ in need of love and mercy) Do something today to make them feel loved.
- Create a poster of hope or homemade cards of encouragement and deliver them to a children’s hospital or nursing home in your community.
(sources: Catholicnewsagency.com, CatholicCulture.org, Hawaiiancatholicherald.com)