The Father of the Forgotten: Father Damien

The Apostle of the Lepers, Jozef de Veuster devoted his life to serving the downtrodden in Hawaii that suffered from leprosy. Known around the world as Father Damien, his commitment to the lepers of Molokai ultimately cost him his life.
Originally from Belgium, Father Damien sailed to Hawaii as a missionary in 1864. Almost immediately after arriving, the young missionary was ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of our Lady Peace in downtown Honolulu.  After ministering at different congregations on Oahu and the Big Island over the course of 7 years, Father Damien volunteered to go to Molokai and serve as the resident priest. For 16 years, Father Damien built houses, dug graves, dressed ulcers and served these forgotten people with love and compassion. Hansen’s disease (better known as leprosy) is caused by a bacterial infection, resulting in scars to skin tissue and the loss of cartilage. First reported in the Hawaiian Islands in 1848, it was thought to have come from China with the importation of plantation workers, and the disease quickly spread amongst native Hawaiians. By 1866, King Kamehameha V and the Legislature of Hawaii had voted to create a medical quarantine on the Makanalua Peninsula on the island of Molokai. Separated from the rest of the island by towering sea cliffs, the colony of Kalaupapa was far removed from humanity. Initially, 57 lepers were sent to the “settlement” on Molokai. By the time Father Damien arrived on Molokai in May of 1873, the number of lepers on the island had surpassed 800. In 1885, after 12 years of diligent work at Kalaupapa, Father Damien contracted leprosy. Undaunted by the ravishing disease that was plaguing his body, Father Damien continued his work. In addition to building more homes, he set about enlarging the orphanage for boys and girls that he had established in the community. Father Damien died on April 15, 1889. After his passing, vile rumors floated around that Father Damien had contracted leprosy due to improper relations with some of the women in the settlement. The instigator of these rumors was the Reverend C. M. Hyde, a Presbyterian minister in Honolulu. Amid these swirling allegations, the renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an open letter rebuking Reverend Hyde’s baseless accusations. Stevenson had traveled to the leper settlement on Molokai right after the death of Father Damien and had been deeply impressed by the priest’s accomplishments.
Father Damien has been revered in Hawaii and around the world for his life of ministry. The Catholic Church bestowed upon Father Damien the ultimate honor on October 11th, 2009, when he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI, becoming Saint Damien.

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