Veuster, Joseph de (Fr. Damien), Bl.

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Picpus (SS.CC.) priest, missionary to lepers; b. Jan. 3, 1840, Tremeloo, Belgium; d. April 15, 1889, Molokai, Hawaii, USA.

Joseph, one of many children of prosperous farmers, was sent to college at Braine-le-Comte, to prepare for a commercial career, but he decided to follow his eldest brother, Auguste (later Fr. Pamphile), into the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus Fathers) at Louvain. He was professed on Oct. 7, 1860, taking the name Damien. When Fr. Pamphile was unable to sail for the missions, Damien received permission to go in his place. He arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, on March 19, 1864, and was ordained May 21 in Our Lady of Peace Cathedral.

Damien served for eight years as a missionary on the island of Hawaii at Puna and Kohala. In 1873, when the vicar apostolic, Louis Maigret, decided to supply a priest for Kalaupapa, the Molokai leper settlement, Damien volunteered. On May 10, 1873, he went to Molokai and was subsequently given permission to remain there permanently. The colony's 800 lepers had only the clothing and food rations supplied by the government. Officially, Damien was the pastor of the Catholics in the colony, but actually he served as the lepers' physician, counselor, teacher, house-builder, sheriff, maker of musical instruments, gravedigger, and undertaker in order to transform their prison into a home. For ten of his 16 years with the lepers, he was without the companionship of other priests. He founded two orphanages at the leprosarium, and effectively fought the immorality, drunkenness, and lawlessness that he found among the adult lepers when he came. Most importantly he instilled in his flock a sense of their human dignity; he taught them to live rather than simply await death.

By 1884, when he had contracted leprosy (Hansen's disease), he wrote that he would not wish to he cured if the price of his cure involved leaving the island and giving up his work. He continued that work untiringly until the month before his death. He was buried next to the church he built, St. Philomena. In 1936 his relics were translated to Louvain, Belgium, where they were placed in a crypt of his congregation's church.

John Paul II beatified Fr. Damien on the Sacred Heart Basilica esplanade in the Koekelberg neighborhood

of Brussels, Belgium, Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 1995. After the beatification ceremony, Fr. Damien's right hand was returned to the Hawaiian people, who placed it in his original grave at Kalaupapa, Molokai. In 1965, his sacrifices were honored with the placement of a bronze statue of Damien in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol to represent Hawaii. Less than two months after his death, a "leprosy fund" was established in London, the first such organized effort devoted to helping the victims of this disease.

Before and after his death, derogatory rumors circulated regarding Damien's morals, primarily because some held the mistaken notion that Hansen's disease was sexually transmitted. He was completely exonerated by a thorough investigation made shortly after he died. During his last years he also suffered from the misunderstanding of his superior and some fellow priests because of his fund raising efforts and invitation to a secular priest to join him. One attack upon Damien's reputation by a Protestant clergyman was answered by R. L. Stevenson in his Open Letter to Dr. Hyde (Boston 1900). He is the patron of lepers and those with incurable diseases, particularly AIDS.

Feast: April 15.

Bibliography: Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1995) 633644. Archives, Hawaii Catholic Mission. p. bradley, Father Damien, SS.CC., Missionary (Rome 1990). e. brion, Comme un arbre au bord des eaux. Le Pére Damien, apôtre des lépreux (Paris 1994); Un étrange bonheur. Lettres du Père Damien lépreux (Paris 1988). m. r. bunson, Father Damien: The Man and His Era (Huntington, Ind. 1989). g. daws, Holy Man. Father Damien of Molokai (Honolulu 1984). h. eynikel, Het zieke paradijs. De biografie van Damiaan (Antwerp 1994); Molokai: The story of Father Damien, tr. l. gilbert (New York 1999). j. farrow, Damien the Leper (New York 1999). j. guntzelman, A retreat with Mother Teresa and Damien of Molokai (Cincinnati, Ohio 1999). v. jourdan, The Heart of Father Damien tr. f. larkin and c. davenport, rev. ed. (New York 1960). L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, no. 23 (1995). l. de reyes, Damien De Veuster SSCC, un homme aux relations théologales (Montréal 1989). r. stewart, Leper Priest of Molokai (Honolulu 2000). d. thomas, Crusaders for God (New York 1952), 2250. r. yzendoorn, History of the Catholic Mission in the Hawaiian Islands (Honolulu 1927).

[r. e. carson]