The Leper Priest
On a farm in a small town inBelguim, a baby was born on January 3, 1840. Jozef De Veuster was the seventh child in the family, and he grew to be muscular and strong. Because of difficult economic times he did not have the opportunity to finish school, but was put to work on the family farm, where it was expected he would one day take over. But Jozef had an older brother and two sisters who had taken religious vows, and he was drawn to their way of life.
When he was eighteen he entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, following his brother, who had become a priest. Jozef took the name Damien after the Saint who was both doctor and martyr. He felt called to mission and prayed daily for an answer; ironically it came when his brother became sick and couldnt travel to his assignment in Hawaii. Br. Damien went in his place in March of 1864, and two months later was ordained a priest.
For nine years Fr. Damien worked on the island of Hawaii, bringing the Sacraments and teaching the Catholic faith to the people there. He was not oblivious, however, to the crisis emerging around him in regard to leprosy, and when the government finally quarantined the lepers to the colony of Kalaupapa on Molokai, he volunteered to go there.
When he arrived on Molokai in 1873, he found the colony in disarray, as the colonists felt abandoned and were not healthy enough to care for themselves.Many of them drank heavily as a form of self-medication. Fr. Damien rallied the healthier ones to help him build houses, schools, roads and hospitals, along with finishing the church, St. Philomena. He cared for the sick himself, built hundreds of coffins and dug graves by hand. He had a special place in his heart for the children, whom he felt were sentenced to an early death.
Fr. Damien aroused criticism for some of his work and methods. Opposing clergy, especially those who dared not visit the leper colony themselves, called him a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an open letter to one of these critics which became famous in its own right as a testimony to Fr. Damiens heroism. Fr.Damien may not have been a perfect man, but God can use anyone who says Yes!
One day in 1884 Fr. Damien was scalded by hot water but felt no pain: he knew he had contracted leprosy. He continued to work for the next several years, but finally succumbed to the disease on April 15, 1889. Like the Saint he was named for, Fr. Damien spent much of his life caring for the sick and becoming a martyr of charity.
Some thoughts on his spirituality:
St. Damien longed to be a missionary but had no idea of the ordeal which would be set before him. He was originally one of four religious who volunteered for the leper colony, but after being sent there on the first shift, he wrote his superior and asked to remain permanently. Even though the work was difficult and spiritually draining, he felt a strong bond with these people, Gods people, who had become outcasts through no fault of their own. He wrote: I wish to give myself unconditionally to the poor lepers. The harvest appears to be ripe here. Pray, and ask others to pray both for me and for all. He relied strongly on prayer, both his own and others, for his strength.
Surrounded by death and dying, Fr. Damien had sufficient reason to contemplate eternity, and this he did often. My greatest pleasure is to go there (the cemetery) to say my beads, and meditate on that unending happiness which so many of them are already enjoying. How should we view death as Christians? During this Easter season we are continually reminded of the fact that Jesus triumphed over death; what does that mean for us personally? It means that we need not fear death because it is merely the doorway to a new and eternal life: And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.And He who sits on the throne said, Behold, I am making all things new. And He said, Write, for these words are faithful and true." (Rev. 21:315)