Saint Damien of Molokai was born in Tremelo, Belgium, in the year 1840. He was named Joseph by his parents, and at the young age of 20 years he entered the Sacred Heart fathers in 1860. Joseph took the name Damien after one of the physician brothers Saints’ Cosmos and Damien, who were martyred in the early persecutions of the Church. Brother Damien gave up all of his worldly possessions, a career and the prospects of a family life, and became a missionary to spread the Gospel to those who had never heard the sacred name of Jesus Christ. He was sent to the island of Hawaii, where he studied and was ordained a priest in 1864. For 7 years he served the people of Hawaii, saying Mass, traveling from village to village, baptizing, preaching, and converting. In 1873, the local bishop sent out word that the leper colony on Molokai was in need of a chaplain. In that time, leprosy was incurable, and it was the most feared disease of that time. It slowly ate away the tissue of those infected, leaving gaping, smelling sores and terrible disfigurement. There was an epidemic of leprosy raging at that time, and to prevent its spread, the leaders of Hawaii mandated that all those who were infected with the disease were to be sent to a small, remote island off the coast of Hawaii, called Molokai. To be sent to Molokai was a death sentence; no contact could be made with family or friends, no communications in or out, and they were restricted to the island until they died of their disease.
Father Damien did not have to go to Molokai. However, he saw this as a wonderful opportunity to evangelize and save souls. He wrote to his superiors, asking permission to go to Molokai. This is the type of man Father Damien was; he knew that by going to this island, he was sentencing himself to death. He knew that he would never be able to return to civilization, or see his family again this side of heaven. And yet, he still volunteered to become the chaplain of the island of Molokai.
When Father Damien arrived on Molokai, he was horrified. The inhabitants of this island were living in disgusting conditions, and committing grievous immoralities. Sexual immorality was rampant, children were dying of starvation and infants were being left to die where they were born. No churches existed, no code of morality or conduct were in place; it was literally a living hell. The Sacred Heart Congregation had constructed a small chapel on Molokai and dedicated it to Saint Philomena when the colony was small, but the chapel was now in disrepair. The first thing Father Damien did was restore the chapel of Saint Philomena. Then, he began to approach the lepers one by one. He writes, "Many a time in fulfilling my priestly duties at the lepers' homes, I have been obliged, not only to close my nostrils, but to remain outside to breathe fresh air. To counteract the bad smell, I got myself accustomed to the use of tobacco. The smell of the pipe preserved me somewhat from carrying in my clothes the obnoxious odor of our lepers.”
In his first days, Father Damien had three primary goals: to restore the personal dignity of the lepers on Molokai, to baptize and care for the orphans, and to save the souls of the dying. The lepers of Molokai were the scum of the earth and outcasts at that time period, and they considered themselves as such. However, Father Damien taught them that they did have worth, and that they were human beings. How did he accomplish this task? First, he constructed a burial site, so the people could see that they would receive a proper burial when they passed from this world. Second, he tried to get those inhabitants who could still work, to work with him in constructing proper housing, raising animals and cultivating crops. He would spend much of his time as Blessed Mother Teresa M.C. of Calcutta of would do; comforting the dying and bedridden, bringing them food, washing their sores, and speaking to them of Jesus. At first he was considered an outsider by most, and he was persecuted for his acts of charity. Soon his selflessness and warm disposition touched the hearts of the lepers, and they swarmed to him. Within 5 years of his arrival, Molokai had a very good hospital, two orphanages, proper housing, it cultivated its own food, and had a thriving church community. However, Father Damien's sufferings were only beginning.
Father Damien soon became a worldwide public figure for his work on Molokai. Money soon started pouring in. The Hawaiian government and Damien’s own superiors misjudged this fame as vanity on the part of Father Damien, rather than an apostolic zeal to help the lepers of Molokai. Father Damien was also in need of a spiritual companion. Isolated on Molokai, he could not go to confession, and he had no one to give him advice in spiritual matters. There is a famous narrative of when the archbishop came to Molokai to pay a visit, Father Damien had to make a public confession from the beach because the bishop was afraid to come onto the island.
Father Damien contracted leprosy in December of 1884, after 11 years of serving the leper colony. And yet, he still did not tire of his work with the lepers. In October, 1885, Damien wrote his superior, Father Leonor Fouesnel, in the Hawaiian Islands: "I am a leper. Blessed be the good God. I only ask one favor of you. Send someone to this tomb to be my confessor." (This was three years before the next priest’s arrival.) He wrote his General in Rome, "I have been decorated by the royal Cross of Kalakaua and now the heavier and less honorable cross of leprosy. Our Lord has willed that I be stigmatized with it.... I am still up and taking care of myself a little. I will keep on working....”
To give you an idea of how much he suffered in the last 4 years he was on this earth, this passage was written by Doctor Mouritz, the medical attendant at Molokai. He charted the progress of the physical dissolution of Damien's body. He writes: "The skin of the abdomen, chest, the back, are beginning to show tubercles, masses of infiltration.... The membranes of the nose, roof of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx are involved; the skin of his cheeks, nose, lips, forehead, and chin are excessively swollen.... His body is becoming emaciated."
Soon before his death, Father Damien’s prayer was answered. His superiors sent a priest with the Franciscan sisters who came to Molokai to run the orphanages, and the priest was able to hear his confession and give him viaticum. Father Damien was born into eternal life on April 15, 1889, just 16 years after arriving on that forsaken island. Through charity and love, patience and suffering, he gained hundreds of souls for Christ, transformed a godless and lawless society into an honorable one, inspired millions of people across the earth, and gained for himself an everlasting crown of unfading glory. Let us pray for the intercession of Saint Damien of Molokai on this his feast day, that through his example we may strive to be servants of those whom society rejects, principally those who cannot defend themselves. For the glory of God and the salvation of souls, Amen.