Every age has its stories of heroic men and women whose
faith challenges them to reach out in heroic love and
service to alleviate the sufferings of their brothers and
This is the story of one such hero. He was born Joseph De
Veuster, a Belgian farm boy. He is known now to all the
world as Damien the Leper. His bronze figure graces the
statuary hall in Washington, D.C.
Damien's compassion for the lepers led him to spend sixteen
years in the "living graveyard that was Molokai," where he
died at the age of forty-nine in service to people suffering
from the terrible disease of leprosy.
Damien never lost sight of his life's purpose, despite the
many difficulties and sufferings he bore. It was only his
faith that enabled him to endure the trials that his life's
work caused him.
We hope that you enjoy this story and find it a source of
strength and encouragement.
The Fateful Words...
He read the letter, over and over. "You may stay as long as
your devotion dictates...." The words exploded against his
mind and shook his heart. Again, and once again, he read
them. They were the most welcome words he had ever received.
He stood and listened to the sounds about him. Soft, cool
breezes gently swept across his island. The palm trees along
the shore bowed before the refreshing winds and clapped
their great fronds in joy. Bright morning sunlight played
over the trees, turning the leaves, now silver, blue. The
Pacific waves rolled tranquilly against the rocky shores.
The green and white waters rose and fell; the ocean's motion
never stopped, day or night. The restless power locked in
the Pacific's waves mirrored the surging energies locked
within his own heart.
He was a priest-a simple man. His parents were Belgian
farmers. Nature had prepared his square, sturdy, and
well-developed body to till the soil. God had summoned him
to labor in a different field-to cultivate a more violent
harvest. The words he now read hammered home this summons.
The letter, from his superiors, gave the priest, Father
Damien De Veuster, permission to stay where he was and where
he, in the springtime of 1873, longed with all his heart to
be. On Molokai, one of the Hawaiian Islands. Father De
Veuster, thirty-three, had already served nine years in the
Hawaiian missions. He was a member of the Fathers of the
Sacred Hearts, who had pioneered Catholicism in the islands.
These religious had faced and overcome enormous problems
since their arrival in 1827. Now they faced a new and
frightful challenge, a leprosy epidemic. To halt the spread
of the dread disease, the Hawaiian government had isolated
several hundred lepers at Kalawao, on the island of
Molokai. Catholic lepers there begged for a priest. Many
missioners, despite danger of contagion, had offered to go.
The Bishop, Louis Maigret, and Father Modeste, the religious
superior of the Sacred Hearts Fathers, had selected Damien
to begin the mission. Both were reluctant to put such a
crushing burden pemanently on this young priest's square and
sturdy shoulders. The Bishop and Father Modeste knew the
bitter work that had to be done; they hesitated to demand
that this one man do so much of it.
Thirteen years before, while a student for the priesthood in
France, Damien had symbolically faced and accepted death. At
the public profession of his final vows, as was the
religious custom of the times, his superiors covered him
with a funeral pall. He had truly believed then that only by
accepting death would he discover life. Now, thirteen years
later, he was putting his dedication to the test. He sought
to serve the most pitiful of all men, the lepers of Molokai.
By so doing, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, "he
shut to, with his own hands, the doors of his own sepulchre."
Men Discover Hawaii
The Hawaiian Islands, one of the most beautiful places in
all of God's creation, were one of the last places on earth
that men discovered. God was saving, it seems, his choicest
gift for the last. Polynesian explorers, the first men to
find the islands, settled there about eight centuries after
Christ's birth. A thousand years later, during the American
Revolution, British sailors, under Captain Cook, were the
first Europeans to reach this paradise.
Europeans found about three hundred thousand people on the
islands. The natives, cheerful, unspoled, easy-going unless
provoked, were generous, delighted in sports and athletic
contests. A highly organized native religion dominated every
aspect of Hawaiian life.
Living was easy in the islands. The people readily obtained
fish, fruit, vegetables, and meat. Hawaiians lived in little
homes constructed of palm branches. Daily life was pleasant,
As contact with the outside world increased, the Hawaiians,
with no immunity to European and Asiatic diseases, suffered
immensely. Smallpox, influenza, cholera, tuberculosis,
venereal disease, struck savagely and pitilessly. Within a
hundred years of the white man's arrival, the native
population dropped from three hundred thousand to fifty
thousand people. In the long litany of ills decimating the
Hawaiian people, none was more vicious than leprosy. This
hideous disease cut an evil swath through the defenseless
natives of our planet's Last Eden.
One of man's oldest curses, leprosy for centuries defied
cure or remedy. To prevent its spread, Moses had separated
and isolated Jews afflicted by it from the community. Roman
legions and, later, Crusaders brought the disease to Europe.
Authorities, having no better remedy than Moses, ordered
lepers segregated from the cities and towns. Lepers were
ordered to wear bells around their necks to warn people of
their approach. By the year 1000, monks had constructed more
than two thousand leper hospitals in Europe. They were
called Lazar houses after the Gospel's poor leper, Lazarus.
Friars often lived in hidden leper settlements, serving the
outcasts' physical and spiritual needs. Although the disease
ran its course through western Europe, by the turn of the
nineteenth century the memory of it remained sunk in the
white man's brain like the terror of a nightmare. Even today
the word "leprosy" evokes in the minds and hearts of people
who have never seen a leper, the strangest sensations of
fear and repulsion.
The first authenticated case of leprosy appeared in Hawaii
in 1840. Within thirty years the disease reached epidemic
proportions among the defenseless Hawaiians. Authorities,
helpless and ill-equipped, adopted the only policy they
knew, the policy of segregation. In 1868, the Hawaiian
government established a leper settlement on the island of
Molokai, and officials were dispatched to round up the
lepers. Ideally equipped by nature for its grim purposes,
Molokai became an island of sorrow in the wild beauty of the
Hawaiian chain. Its very name struck terror in the Hawaiian
Hawaiians gave little thought to tommorow; and had no
worries about robbers, since village families held all
things in common. They ate, slept and worked on the family
Her name was Karokina. Mother of three children, she lived
in a tiny fishing village on the island of Hawaii. Her life
was simple, serene; her home, a lean-to built of palm
branches. Affection, laughter and song characterized
Karokina's home life. She loved to watch the sun cast down
silver jewels of light upon the green ocean. The gods were
close to Karo. Every so often, Pele, goddess of fire, whose
footsteps the medicine men declared had formed their
islands, hurled smoke and fire from a nearby volcano. Then
Karo knew fear. The blue skies turned to black, the ocean
hissed as hot lava and firestones poured into its bosom. The
sun and moon hid their faces behind the great clouds of
steam that rose from the heaving seas.
A lake of fire springs from the heart of a Hawaiian
mountain. Centuries after volcanic explosions had formed the
islands, their people were blessed by the fire of love in
one man's heart.
Then the winds cleared the air, and Karo's fear passed. Karo
loved her islands most in the spring, when the poinciana
trees burst into masses of scarlet, orange and gold bossoms,
and pink flowers popped out from the green canopies of the
monkey pod trees. It was during a springtime of great joy
and beauty that white men from Honolulu came to Karo's
village. They were searching for natives who had that
strange disease white men called leprosy.
Karo had the illness. She knew a few years ago, when her
hand brushed against a smoldering log. Karo felt no pain.
The terrible illness had begun its frightful work. Her
face's gentle features gradually withered. Her eyes
narrowed, and her ears enlarged. The disease ate her energy,
and she knew fever and weakness. Karo's husband and children
sorrowed at her plight and did all they could to comfort
her. They, of course, kept her at home. Her husband heard
that the government was rounding up lepers and sending them
to Molokai. "How cruel," he complained to his neighbors, "to
separate mother or father or children from home when they
need the family most. If the white man wishes to treat his
sick differently than Hawaiians do, why doesn't he go away
and leave us alone? He forced his cruel illness on us and
now he is forcing his brutal cures."
There were other lepers in Karo's village. Some heard the
white man coming and hid in the great volcano caves. Others
found hiding places and holes in the jungle floor. But for
Karo it was too late. The hunters took her at gunpoint to a
government schooner. Her husband tried to stop them, but he
was helpless. Karo's children wailed and wept piteous tears
of despair. White men spoke of their god as a god of mercy.
Yet they showed no mercy.
Karo's captors took her first to Honolulu, where they herded
her together with lepers from other islands. Some where more
disfigured and ill than she was. Many could not walk; others
could barely crawl. But the police forced them all on board
the ship that was to take them to Molokai in this February
of 1873. The ship's crew looked on the unfortunates with
After several hours on the open sea, the schooner, full of
weeping, crying and terrorized sick, arrived off the Molokai
colony's shore. There was no harbor, no dock. The captain
and crew, afraid to bring the vessel too close to the rocky
beach, drove and hurled the lepers into the surf. Some
drowned. Others miraculously survived. On torn and bleeding
feet they stumbled up on the harsh volcanic rock, numb and
There was no one to greet them. No one to warm them. Many
survived the pounding surf only to die from exhaustion on
the inhospitable beach. Karo dragged herself to shore.
Eventually she found a little cave to shelter her shivering
body. Wild fruit helped nourish her. There was little food.
She soon joined another group of lepers. They told her to
forget home. All of them were condemned. They might as well
reach for whatever wild joys they could possess before
merciful death claimed them.
"In this place," a man advised Karo, "there is no law."
Sexual immorality, brawling, drunkenness, robberies, and
orgiastic dancing, fueled by liquor made from tree roots,
characterized the lives of lepers. Nobody cared. When lepers
died, their poor bodies were thrown into graves so shallow
that pigs and dogs grew fat feasting on their flesh.
Karo despaired and died.
The Outside World
Between 1866 and 1873, seven hundred and ninety-seven lepers
arrived at Molokai. Almost half died. Public indignation
mounted. The Board of Health, which natives wryly dubbed the
"Board of Death," sought to improve conditions. The
government granted an increase in leper food and clothing
rations, and appointed a superintendent to restore law and
order to the colony. The press kept up a drum-fire of
complaints about the ill-treatment and disorder of Molokai.
In April, 1873, Walter Gibson, a colorful and clever
politician, wrote in Nuhou, a Hawaiian newspaper; "If a
noble Christian priest, preacher or Sister should be
inspired to go and sacrifice a life to console these poor
wretches, that would be a royal soul to shine forever on a
throne reared by human love."
Despite the fulsome prose, Gibson was trumpeting a call, a
challenge. There were indeed several men in the islands,
only too willing to respond. They were good shepherds,
searching for a flock for which they could lay down their
lives. They were priests and Brothers of the Sacred Hearts.
One of them was Father Damien De Veuster. Call it
presentiment, prophecy, or anything you wish, but Damien had
known for some time that he would eventually go to Molokai.
In April, 1873, he wrote his Father General in Europe about
his mission in Kohala, Hawaii, where he was stationed. "Many
of our Christians here at Kohala also had to go to Molokai.
I can only attribute to God an undeniable feeling that soon
I shall join them.... Eight years of service among
Christians you love and love you have tied us by powerful
bonds." And join them he did. In early May, 1873, Father
Damien's superiors approved his request to serve at the
The New Pastor
Bishop Maigret accompanied Damien to Molokai. The Bishop
proudly presented the new pastor to the Catholic lepers. The
joy of their welcome and Damien's excitement upon finally
arriving at Molokai, dimmed the fact that he carried with
him little more than his Breviary. Sacred Hearts religious
previously had built a tiny chapel on Molokai, and had
dedicated it to St. Philomena. For his first rectory, Damien
used the shelter of a pandanus tree, beside the little
church. The pandanus offered hospitality to all passing
creatures, centipedes, scorpions, ants, roaches and,
finally, fleas. Cats, dogs and sheep found shelter under the
tree's kind branches. Damien settled in comfortably. A large
rock on the side of the tree served as his dinner table.
During these first weeks the new missionary took normal
precautions to avoid contagion.
With the lepers' help, Damien added the rear wing to
Molokai's chapel. He also built the rectory (left). The
priest was a skillful carpenter. No construction project
But if Damien protected his body, there was nothing he could
do to protect his eyes or ears or sense of smell from the
shock of contact with the leper. Here at Kalawao, the priest
had opened a door to hell. Victims of the disease were all
about him, their bodies in ruins, their faces ravaged and
smashed by the coracious bacillus of leprosy. The constant
coughing of the sick was the colony's most familiar sound.
Gathering up his enormous resources of courage, Damien began
to approach the lepers one by one. Their breath was fetid;
their bodies, already in a state of corruption, exuded a
most foul odor. One of his first visits was to a young girl.
He had found that worms had eaten her whole side.
"Many a time," he wrote as he recalled these first days, "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."
Molokai was a colony of shame, peopled by lost souls and
smashed bodies. Medical care was minimal. Even if decent
care were provided, Hawaiians distrusted the white man's
medicine, preferring their own witch doctors, or kahuna.
White doctors sporadically appeared at government expense.
These physicians lived in terror of contagion. One doctor
examined lepers' wounds by lifting their bandages with his
cane. Another left medicine on a table where lepers could
collect it without touching him.
Life was grotesque on Molokai. Ambrose Hutchinson, a veteran
of half a century in the colony, describes an incident in
the settlement's early days. "A man, his face partly covered
below the eyes, with a white rag or handkerchief tied behind
his head, came out from the house that stood near the road.
He was pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with a bundle, which, at
first, I mistook for soiled rags. He wheeled it across the
yard to a small windowless shack.... The man then half
turned over the wheelbarrow and shook it. The bundle
(instead of rags it was a human being) rolled out on the
floor with an agonizing groan. The fellow turned the
wheelbarrow around and wheeled it away, leaving the sick man
lying there helpless. After a while the dying man raised and
pushed himself in the doorway; with his body and his legs
stretched out, he lay there face down."
Molokai was a chamber of horrors. But the Hawaiian
government (which at this time was independent of the United
States and headed by native royalty) had not planned it that
Plans Gone Awry
The Board of Health had put much thought into the leper
settlement's establishment. It chose Molokai because its
geography was ideal for enforcing the isolation and
segregation policy. Like other Hawaiian islands, Molokai was
formed by a volcanic eruption from the ocean floor. As the
fires under the crust of the earth exploded upward, Molokai
rose out of the sea, a spectacular palisade reaching three
to four thousand feet above the ocean. A later eruption
within the high island poured hot lava into the sea. The
volcanic flow piled up until it formed a shelf at the base
of Molokai's high cliffs. This peninsula sticks out into the
ocean like a dirty brown furrowed tongue. There is no way to
leave the peninsula except to plunge into the ocean or to
climb up the huge vertical precipice surrounding the
peninsula on three sides. The Board of Health knew that the
peninsula was a natural prison, for no one suffering the
ravages of leprosy could possibly scale the cliffs
surrounding the colony. Most of Molokai's non-leper
population lived on the high plateau which embraces more
than ninety percent of the island's land area. The leper
colony was established at Kalawao on a part of the peninsula
Molokai's first lepers lived on, died on, and were buried in
their mats. Authorities expected these poor people, weakened
and crippled by their disease, to till the rich soil, raise
cattle, and feed themselves. At first the government
provided a few miserable grass huts for shelter. Abandoned
lepers perished from hunger and cold.
Molokai's palisades are covered with heavy green vegetation.
Great cataracts of water from the frequent rainstorms that
lash Molokai, plunge down her cliffsides. At certain seasons
of the year, winds carrying chill and dampness, cascade down
from the mountains onto the leper colony. Huddled in their
flimsy huts, the lepers suffer grievously from the cold. "A
heavy windstorm," Damien reported after arrival, "blew down
most of the rotten abodes, and many a weakened leper lay in
the wind and rain with his blanket and wet clothing."
Father Damien was deeply moved by leper children. He
struggled to preserve them from the physical and moral
corruption of Molokai.
Damien's Colony Of Death
At the outset of his mission Damien aimed to restore in each
leper a sense of personal worth and dignity. To show his
poor battered flock the value of their lives, he had to
demonstrate to them the value of their deaths. And so he
turned his attention first to the cemetery area beside his
little chapel. He fenced it around to protect the graves
from the pigs, dogs, and other scavengers. He constructed
coffins and dug graves. He organized the lepers into the
Christian Burial Association to provide decent burial for
each deceased. The organization arranged for the requiem
Mass, the proper funeral ceremonies, and sponsored a musical
group that played during the funeral procession.
Damien continued to minister to the sick, bringing the
Sacraments of confession and Holy Communion and annointing
bedridden lepers. He washed their bodies, bandaged their
wounds and tidied their rooms and beds. He did all he could
to make them as comfortable as possible.
He encouraged lepers to help him in all his activities. With
their assistance he built everything from coffins to
cottages. He constructed the rectory, built a home for the
lepers' children. When the colony expanded along the
peninsula to Kalaupapa, he hustled the lepers into
construction of a good road between Kalawao and Kalaupapa.
Under his direction, lepers blasted rocks at the Kalaupapa
shoreline and opened a decent docking facility. Damien
taught his people to farm, to raise animals, to play musical
instruments, to sing. He watched with pride as the leper
bands he organized marched up and down playing the music
Hawaiians love so well. No self-pity in this colony.
Damien's cheerful disposition and desire to serve touched
the lepers' hearts without patronizing or bullying them.
Little by little their accomplishments restored the sense of
dignity their illness threatened to destroy.
Under Damien's vigorous lead, a sense of dignity and joy-and
order replaced Molokai's despair and lawlessness. Neat,
painted cottages, many of which the priest himself
constructed, replaced the colony's miserable shacks.
He harried the government authorities. In their eyes he was
"obstinate, headstrong, brusk and officious." Joseph Dutton
later on speaks of him as "vehement and excitable in regard
to matters that did not seem to him right, and he sometimes
said and did things that he afterwards regretted..., but he
had a true desire to do right, to bring about what he
thought was best. No doubt he erred sometimes in judgement....
In certain periods he got along smoothly with everyone, and
at times he was urgent for improvements. In some cases he
made for confusion, as various government authorities would
not agree with him."
In all things his lepers came first. It would be a mistake,
however, to think of Damien as a single-minded fanatic. He
was a human being who was quick to smile, of pleasant
disposition, of open and frank countenance.
No one could deny that he was a headstrong person. But no
one who knew him could deny that he was a man of warm and
tender heart. He quickly forgave injuries and never bore a
Charles Warren Stoddard, an American writer, first visited
Molokai in 1868, five years before Damien's arrival. He
returned in 1884. In place of the miserable huts of the
colony's beginning, Stoddard now found two villages of white
houses, surrounded by flower gardens and cultivated fields.
Molokai boasted a decent hospital, a graveyard, and two
orphanages filled with children. But what delighted Stoddard
most of all was that the men and women, instead of rotting
in the slime, awaiting death, were out horseback-riding.
In 1888, the Englishman Edward Clifford visited Damien. "I
had gone to Molokai expecting to find it scarcely less
dreadful than hell itself," Clifford wrote, "and the
cheerful people, the lovely landscapes, and comparatively
painless life were all suprises. These poor people seemed
Clifford asked lepers if they missed not being back home.
They replied, "Oh, no! We're well off here. The government
watches over us, the superintendent is good, and we like our
pastor. He builds our houses himself, he gives us tea,
biscuits, sugar and clothes. He takes good care of us and
doesn't let us want for anything."
The Holy Man
Damien was completely aware of the Hawaiians' childlike
nature. Simple, generous, hospitable people, the Hawaiians
were most attractive. They remained, however, children of
Adam and could be licentious, lazy, and, at times,
mean-spirited. Damien was not blind to their defects.
Ambrose Hutchinson describes the immorality that continued
to plague the colony despite Damien's best efforts.
Drinkers and dancers met in a remote area of the leper
settlement called "the crazy pen." From time to time Damien
raided this scabrous spot, and with his walking stick he
broke up dancing and knocked over the liquor bottles.
Hutchinson writes: "The hilarious feasters made a quick
getaway from the place through the back door to escape
Damien's big stick. He would not hesitate to lay it on good
and hard on the poor hapless one who happened to come within
reach of his cane."
His disciplinary measures did not hurt church attendance.
The lepers came to St. Philomena's in such numbers that he
had to enlarge the chapel. But even expanded facilities
could not contain the worshipers. On Sundays, overflow
crowds peered through the church windows to participate in
the divine services.
Visitors never forgot the sights and sounds of a Sunday Mass
at St. Philomena's Chapel. Damien, clear-eyed and devout,
stood at the altar. Strong, muscular, a picture of vitality
and health, the priest's face was kind and his concern for
the people evident. His lepers gathered around him on the
altar. Some were blind. They constantly coughed and
expectorated. The odor was overpowering. Yet Damien never
once wavered or showed his disgust. Damien placed, of all
things, poor boxes in the church. Because the blind often
missed the slot, the pastor placed a little bell inside the
poor box. When the sightless leper's coin had dropped safely
into the box, the bell rang.
Hawaiians love to sing, and St. Philomena's choir had no
shortage of candidates. Because leprosy often attacked vocal
cords, leper voices produced peculiar sounds. Nevertheless,
the choir sang joyfully.
Damien's life was suffused with horror, yet he refused to be
broken by it and refused to permit his little flock to be
swept into despair. He ran foot races for the sports-loving
lepers, even though some of them had no feet. He formed a
band, even though some had few fingers to play the
instruments. One witness reported two organists who played
at the same time, managing ten fingers between them.
Damien - A World Figure
News of Damien's deeds spread from Hawaii to Europe to
America. The priest of Molokai became front-page news. Funds
poured in from all over the world. An Anglican priest,
Reverend Hugh Chapman, organized, through the help of the
London Times, a highly successful fund drive. Damien's
notoriety and fund-raising drew the ire of the Hawaiian
government and his own religious superiors. Both accused him
of playing the press for his own selfish reasons. The
government was unhappy, because it felt Damien's begging
gave the Hawaiian effort to combat leprosy a bad image.
Walter Gibson, Prime Minister of the Hawaiian king, felt
that his government was most generous toward the lepers. It
was spending fifty thousand dollars a year, which
represented five percent of its total taxes, on leper care.
No other government in the world could point to such a proud
The superiors of the Sacred Hearts mission were distressed
because they felt Damien was giving the Congregation's
Fathers and Brothers a bad image. The press made it seem as
if he were the only Sacred Hearts missionary willing to
serve the colony. His superiors knew this was not true. And
they took it as an affront to the whole Congregation. His
superiors further accused Damien of being a "loner" because
of his unhappy relationship with the three assistants they
had sent him at different times. In all fairness, it
probably is true that no one else could have lived with any
of the three priests. But no one was more irritated by
Damien's fame than Hawaii's Yankee missionaries.
Stern Puritan divines felt leprosy was the inevitable result
of the Hawaiian people's licentiousness. In their
puritanical judgement the Hawaiian people were corrupt and
debased. The segregation policy would have to be enforced to
hasten the inevitable physical and moral collapse of the
essentially rotten Hawaiian culture. There were medical
doctors who were so convinced of an essential connection
between leprosy and sexual immorality that they insisted
that leprosy could be spread only through sexual contact.
When Damien entered his prison at Molokai, he had to make a
decision. He believed that the Hawaiians were basically good
and not essentially corrupt. And now he had to show them
belief, regardless of the price. Thus, somewhere during the
first part of his stay he made the dread decision to set
aside his fear of contagion. He touched his lepers, he
embraced them, he dined with them, he cleaned and bandaged
their wounds and sores. He placed the host upon their
battered mouths. He put his thumb on their forehead when he
annointed them with the holy oil. All these actions involved
touch. Touch is, of course, necessary if one is to
communicate love and concern. The Hawaiians instinctively
knew this. And that is why the Hawaiians shrank from the
Yankee divines. Although these Yankee religious leaders
expended much money on their mission endeavors, few
Hawaiians joined their churches. The islanders sensed the
contempt in which the puritan minds held them.
On this altar which he constructed, Father Damien celebrated
Mass each day. From the Eucharist, the priest drew strength
to continue his lonely and perilous mission. After leprosy
claimed him, and he entered into his "peculiar Golgotha," he
found his deepest consolation and hope in the Mass.
Damien was not, as we have noted, blind to the Hawaiians'
very real faults. Many Hawaiians, by their irregular sexual
habits, greatly contributed to the spread of leprosy. But
Damien knew that was not the only way the disease was
communicated. Above all, he rejected the insufferable notion
that God had laid this disease as a curse upon these people,
to wipe them off the face of the earth. Damien hated
leprosy. He didn't see it as a tool of a vengeful God. He
saw it as a suffering that man must eliminate. God loved the
leper. No man had the right to scorn him.
Thus, very early in his apostolate at Molokai, Damien was
impelled to identify himself as closely as possible with his
lepers. Long before he had the disease, he spoke of himself
and the people of Molokai as "we lepers." Six months after
his arrival at Kalawao he wrote his brother in Europe: "...I
make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus
Christ. That is why, in preaching, I say 'we lepers'; not,
Damien embraced the leper but not leprosy. He lived in great
dread of the disease. When he first experienced leprosy's
symptomatic itching, while still a missionary at Kohala,
some years before he went to Molokai, he knew then that the
loathing diseased threatened him. Even when the disease had
run a good bit of its brutal course through his body, he
still at times seemed to refuse to admit he was a victim.
But leprosy finally claimed him. It was the final price God
exacted from Damien to show his sense of community and
oneness with his poor afflicted flock.
Some said there was a connection between leprosy and
venereal disease. In order to witness against those who
claimed leprosy could only be spread by sexual contact,
Damien submitted to the indignity of having his blood and
body examined in detail after he had contracted the disease.
Doctor Arning, a world-famous specialist in the disease,
reported, after examination, that Damien had no sign of
syphilis. In a signed statement dictated to Brother Joseph
Dutton, his co-worker, Damien wrote, "I have never had
sexual intercourse with anyone whomsoever."
History has borne out the wisdom of Damien's decision to
take these embarrassing measures. Shortly after Damien's
death, a Yankee divine of Honolulu, Doctor Charles McEwen
Hyde, bitterly attacked the priest's moral life. The good
clergyman opined that Damien got leprosy because he was
Father Damien was not lacking defenders. In a magnificent
statement, Robert Louis Stevenson, who had visited Molokai
after Damien's death, rose to champion the priest's cause.
The author's defense of Damien rested upon the complete
sacrifice the man made of his life. A sacrifice no Yankee
missionary in Hawaii had duplicated.
The Knight Commander
The Hawaiian government decorated Father Damien with the
Cross of the Royal Order of Kalakaua (above, left). The
priest accepted the award but rarely wore the medal. In
later stages of his own illness, Damien remarked, "The Lord
decorated me with his own particular cross-leprosy."
If some white missionaries scorned Father Damien, most
Hawaiians loved him. In September 1881, Hawaiian Princess
Liliuokalani visited Molokai. The Princess, moved deeply by
the lepers' suffering, was unable to give the speech she had
prepared. Leaving Molokai with a broken heart, she returned
to Honolulu and requested Father Damien to accept the
Hawaiian Order of Knight Commander of the Royal Order of
Kalakaua in recognition of his "efforts in alleviating the
distress and mitigating the sorrows of the unfortunate."
With pleasure, Damien accepted the award. He felt it would
bring attention to his lepers. There were many Americans,
too, both in Hawaii and on the mainland, who recognized the
work that Damien was doing and who sent, with characteristic
American generosity, funds and other forms of help to him.
In Honolulu, American Protestants were among his most
generous benefactors. Opening their hearts and their purses
to Damien, they sent him food, medicines, clothing, and all
sorts of help for his mission.
My Insupportable Melancholy
Damien was alone of the frontier of death. His loneliness
oppressed him. He speaks of his "black thoughts" and the
"insupportable melancholy that arose from his lack of
religious companionship." The Board of Health remonstrated
with him because, ignoring the isolation policy, he climbed
up and down the palisades to build chapels and to bring the
Sacraments to the healthy people who dwelt on Molokai's
plateau. His superiors were displeased with his trips to
Honolulu. They felt he gave bad example in the face of the
government's policy on segregation of lepers. Furthermore,
two Sacred Hearts Fathers, laboring in other parts of the
Hawaiian Islands, had contracted leprosy. The superiors did
not want to force them to Molokai. They felt that Damien, by
leaving the colony, might just precipitate a government
He continually begged his superiors for a confrere, not only
to assist him in the ever-mounting work, but also to provide
spiritual comfort for him. He hungered above all for a
priestly companion to whom he could confess and receive the
Sacrament of Penance. His writings reveal his concern that
he would forget the true purpose of his life. In a little
notebook, he counseled himself: "Be severe toward yourself,
indulgent toward others. Have scrupulous exactitude for
everything regarding God: prayer, meditation, Mass,
administration of the Sacraments. Unite your heart with
God.... Remember always your three vows, by which you are
dead to the things of the world. Remember always that God is
eternal and work courageously in order one day to be united
with him forever."
During one time when the isolation policy was being strictly
enforced, a ship's captain, reacting to the government's
orders, forbade Damien's bishop to disembark on Molokai. In
order to see the bishop, Damien sailed out to the boat. The
captain refused Damien's request to board. The priest
pleaded in vain with the captain, saying that he wanted to
confess his sins. "Bishop," the priest called to the boat,
"will you hear my confession from here?" The bishop
consented, and Damien in an exercise of humility that
touched all who witnessed it, confessed his sins aloud to
Damien The Leper
One day in December, 1884, while soaking his feet in
extremely hot water, Father De Veuster experienced no
sensation of heat or pain. The evil disease he had battled
for so long now claimed him. In his last years he engaged in
a flurry of activity. He hastened to complete his many
building projects, enlarge his orphanages, organize his
work. Help came from four unexpected sources. A priest, a
soldier, a male nurse, and a nun. The soldier, Joseph
Dutton, was the most unusual man. He had survived Civil War
combat, a broken marriage, several years of hard drinking,
to show up on Molokai's shores in July, 1886. He stayed
forty-five years without ever leaving the colony. He served
the lepers of the Baldwin Home for Boys. Joseph was never
seriously ill until just before his death in 1931. He was
just short of eighty-eight. Another layman, James Sinnett, a
man who had a colorful and checkered career, during which he
gained some experience in nursing in Mercy Hospital,
Chicago, came to Molokai eight months before Father Damien
died. The leper priest called him "Brother James." He nursed
Father Damien during the final phase of his illness, and
closed his eyes in death. During the last days of Damien's
life, Sinnett served as his secretary. He was faithful to
the very end, and when Damien died, Sinnett left the colony.
Nothing was heard from him thereafter.
Father Louis-Lambert Conrardy, a fellow Belgian, joined
Father Damien May 17, 1888. Archbishop William Gross of
Oregon generously permitted Father Conrardy to leave his own
priest-poor area to labor in Molokai. Archbishop Gross wrote
of Conrardy: "I have trampled all over Oregon with Father
Conrardy and he is a noble, heroic man.... Though he knows
and realizes perfectly that he might succomb to the disease,
his voluntary going is real heroism." Conrardy and Damien
joined in their unreserved dedication to the lepers. Along
with this, Conrardy provided the spiritual and social
companionship that Damien so desperately craved.
The Sister who now offered at this critical junction support
for Damien and his work, was Mother Marianne Kopp, Superior
of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, New York, who served
the Honolulu leper hospital. Damien requested Mother
Marianne to send Sisters to care for the girls' orphanage at
Molokai. Damien promised her that not one of her Sisters
would ever be afflicted with leprosy. The Franciscan Sisters
of Syracuse are still at Molokai. To this day, not one of
them has ever contracted leprosy.
Damien's Last Days
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
Conrardy'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...."
The announcement that Damien had leprosy hit his own
religious superiors, Father Fouesnel and his bishop, Hermann
Koeckemann, like a thunderbolt. Damien was the third Sacred
Hearts missionary stricken with leprosy. To prevent further
infection, Father Fouesnel forbade Damien to visit the
mission headquarters of the Sacred Hearts Fathers in
Honolulu. "If you come," Father Superior advised Damien,
"you will be relegated to a room which you are not to leave
until your departure." Father Fouesnel suggested that if
Damien insisted on coming to Honolulu, he stay at the
Franciscan Sisters' leper hospital. "But if you go there,"
the superior counseled, "please do not say Mass. For neither
Father Clement nor I will consent to celebrate Mass with the
same chalice and the same vestments you have used. The
Sisters will refuse to receive Holy Communion from your
hands." One can understand the superior's concern. But
Damien was being forced, nevertheless, to consume the bitter
wine of loneliness to its dregs. He now knew not only the
physical sufferings of Christ but the harrowing loneliness
and abandonment of his Savior. Damien did go to Honolulu and
remained at the leprosarium from July 10 to 16. It was
during the time that he arranged with Mother Marianne to
come to Molokai. He spoke of his rejection by his own as
"the greatest suffering he had ever endured in his life."
The Sorrowful Mother
Catherine De Veuster, Damien's mother, had lived all these
years on the occasional letters he wrote to her from
Molokai. He had tried to keep her from the news of his
leprosy. But inevitably she found out. Someone advised her
that the newspapers said, "the flesh of the leper priest of
Molokai was falling off in hunks." It was too much for
Catherine. Now eighty-three years of age, a widow for
thirteen years, the shock of the sufferings of her son broke
her old heart. On April 5, 1886, about four in the
afternoon, turning her eyes for the last time toward the
image of the Blessed Mother and the picture of her son, she
bowed her head in that direction and died calmly and
Doctor Mouritz, medical attendant at Molokai, 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
An ever-deepening mental distress accompanied Damien's
physical dissolution. A severe depression, as well as
religious scruples, now plagued the leper priest. Damien
felt he was unworthy of heaven. The rejection by his
religious superiors left him in near disarray. Once he
claimed: "From the rest of the world I received gold and
frankincense, but from my own superiors myrrh" (a bitter
herb). His superiors complained about Father Conrardy's
presence on Molokai. Conrardy was not a religious of the
Sacred Hearts, and they felt that Damien had encouraged his
presence there as a reproach to their ineffectual efforts to
provide him with a companion. Soon after Damien's death, the
Sacred Hearts superiors maneuvered Father Conrardy out of
As death approached, Father Damien engaged in a flurry of
activity. He worked as much as his wounded and broken body
would permit him. He wrote his bishop, entreating not to be
dispensed from the obligation of the Breviary, which he
continued to recite as best he could as his eyes failed. The
disease invading his windpipe progressed to such an extent
that it kept him from sleeping more than an hour or two at
night. His voice was reduced to a raucous whisper. Leprosy
was in his throat, his lungs, his stomach, and his
intestines. After ravaging his body outwardly, it was now
destroying him from within.
As the end drew near, there were priests of his own
Congregation to hear his confession. They had come with the
Franciscan Sisters. On March 30, one of them, a Father
Moellers, heard Damien's last confession. The leper priest
had requested a funeral pall, which the Sisters made from
him and delivered from Honolulu. It arrived the same day.
Two more weeks of suffering, and on April 15, 1889, Damien
died. It was Holy Week. Some weeks before, Damien had said
that the Lord wanted him to spend Easter in heaven.
Once he had written, "The cemetery, the church and rectory
form one enclosure; thus at nighttime I am still keeper of
this garden of the dead, where my spiritual children lie at
rest. My greatest pleasure is to go there to say my by beads
and meditate on that unending happiness which so many of
them are enjoying." And now it was his turn to occupy a
little plot of ground in "his garden of the dead."
He no longer meditated on that unending happiness, but now
most surely possessed it. Long ago he had selected the
precise spot for his grave amid the two thousand lepers
buried in Molokai cemetery. Coffin bearers laid him to rest
under his pandanus tree. It was the same tree that had
sheltered him the day he read those fateful words: "You may
stay as long as your devotion dictates...."