Father Damien, an extraordinary person, an exceptional life
Father Damien’s life holds all the ingredients for a captivating book in the shape of emotions, empathy, atrocities, nostalgia, drama, tensions and conflicts.
Father Damien’s slot in history
Damien or Jozef de Veuster as the real name was, was born on 3 January 1840 in a small village north-east of Brussels, Belgium, called Tremelo.
As an adolescent, he was very active, becoming ever more conscious of his religious vocation. At the age of nineteen, he decided to strike out on his own without parental consent and went to Louvain to start his noviciate. In the course of this, he acquired his name in religion which was Damien. Only six months later, he was already studying for the priesthood.
In 1863, Damien took the place of his brother who had come down with typhus. He left for Hawaii before ordination. At Molokai, the leprosy patients were there, squeezed in between the sea and high reefs, awaiting death. Damien decided he must help them. In 1873, he reached that hell upon earth, the island of Molokai, becoming in this way the true pioneer of development aid.
Damien did not look upon leprosy patients as pariahs but rather as friends and shared their life. In doing so, he became, all at the same time, policeman, surgeon, undertaker, carpenter, architect, agitator, spokesperson on the media, organiser, inventor, nurse and missionary. Although fully conscious of the risk of contamination, he refused to leave his leprosy patients in the lurch and became as one with them for sixteen years.
He alerted the whole world and called upon the conscience of its inhabitants asking for financial assistance. His message was to the effect that no human being should undergo excommunication and, still less, a gruesome sentence to death. He wrote to the heads of government in Honolulu asking for support and equipment for the benefit of his leprosy patients. His letters made him famous.
And then the inevitable happened – Damien himself became infected. On Monday 15 April 1889, at the age of forty-nine, he died and was buried in the midst of his friends. However, his spirit lives on through the exceptional example he set to the world.
On 4 June 1995, more than a century after Damien’s death, Pope John Paul II declared him, Jozef de Veuster, a saint.