St. Damien de Veuster: “The Apostle of the Lepers”

Priest and Missionary
•Feast day: May 10
•Born and Died: January 3, 1840 - April 15, 1889

Born in 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium, St. Damien de Veuster, also known as St. Damien of Molokai, entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1860, adopting the name Damien. He harbored a fervent desire to embark on a missionary journey overseas, a prayer that found fruition in his assignment to Hawaii in 1864 following his ordination at Honolulu’s cathedral. Assigned to North Kohala, he encountered the harrowing reality of a leprosy epidemic ravaging the Hawaiian populace.

In 1865, as the plight of lepers worsened, they were banished to the desolate island of Molokai, a place of despair marked by scarcity of sustenance and medical aid. Undeterred by the grim prospects and fully cognizant of the peril to his own life, Father Damien volunteered for service in the leper colony, committing himself to its inhabitants with unwavering courage and faith. Upon arrival, he promptly established the parish of Saint Philomena and embarked on a multifaceted mission to alleviate suffering. Beyond religious duties, he erected educational institutions, orphanages, agricultural endeavors, and provided practical assistance in various forms, from attending to wounds to constructing coffins and graves.

In a poignant letter to his brother, he articulated his profound dedication: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” His selfless devotion knew no bounds. However, in 1884, Damien himself fell victim to leprosy, an affliction he had tirelessly combated. Despite his own deteriorating health, he continued his ministry until his passing in 1889 at the age of 49, interred beneath the pandanus tree where he had first sought rest upon arriving on Molokai.

Photo of  St. Damien de Veuster shortly before his death at age 49.
Photo of St. Damien de Veuster shortly before his death at age 49.
St. Damien de Veuster and St. Marianne Cope standing beside Father Damien's funeral bier
St. Damien de Veuster and St. Marianne Cope standing beside Father Damien’s funeral bier

Canonized in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI, Father Damien’s legacy endures as a beacon of compassion and solidarity. His canonization also bestowed upon him the title of Patron of People with Leprosy, immortalizing his unwavering commitment to alleviating the suffering of the afflicted. Libert H. Boeynaems, a Belgian Catholic priest who served as the fourth vicar apostolic of the Vicariate Apostolic of the Hawaiian Islands, calls Father Damien “the Apostle of the Lepers” in his writing in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Father Damien’s remarkable life inspired a biographical film released in 1999. Directed by Paul Cox, “Molokai” portrays the selfless dedication of the Belgian priest as he tended to the afflicted residents of the Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.