Today is the feast day of St Damian of Molokai.
Born Josef De Veuster in Belgium in 1840, he began his novitiate with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1859. In 1863, he took the place of his brother (who had fallen ill) on a trip to Hawaii to serve as a missionary.
At that time, the population of Hawaii were suffering the effects of contact with European diseases, including Hansen’s disease (leprosy). There was no known treatment for leprosy, and it was believed to be highly contagious. The Hawaiian authorities decided to quarantine anyone with leprosy on the island of Molokai, where they would be left to their own devices, except for supplies dropped from time to time. Over 8,000 people were sent to the island between 1865 and 1869, where they coped as best they could without medical care, government, adequate supplies, or hope.
In 1873, the bishop asked for volunteers to serve as priests on the island, knowing that it could be a death sentence. St Damian was one of the first to volunteer.
St Damian began by building a church. Under his spiritual direction, the small colony began to enforce basic laws. Shacks became painted huts; they built a school and planted gardens and organised working farms. St Damian didn’t just give spiritual direction: he dressed ulcers, built homes and beds, built coffins and dug graves. Following his example, others came to nurse, to teach, and to work on construction and maintenance.
St Damian died of leprosy on April 15, 1889, aged 49, and was laid to rest by the community he had transformed through the power of Christ’s love.