Childhood & Early Life
Father Damien was born Jozef De Veuster, on January 3, 1840, in Tremelo Village, Brabant, Belgium, to Joannes Franciscus and Anne-Catherine. His father was a Flemish corn merchant. He was the youngest of the seven children, and the fourth son, in the family.
His father owned a huge farm in the village, and it was expected that Jozef and his brothers would take care of the farm together. However, Jozef had other plans.
His family was ardently religious, with three of his elder siblings having taken religious vows. Uninterested in taking over the family farm or pursuing academics, Jozef decided to follow in his elder siblings’ footsteps and become a Christian missionary.
He attended a local school till the age of 13. He was expected to help his father take care of the farm. He did that until his late teenage years. He then joined the ‘Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary’ in Leuven.
He adopted the name “Brother Damianus,” while taking his first vow. It was in honor of Saint Damien, an early Christian saint who was known to possess miraculous powers. He took his first vows in October 1860 and intended to become a priest soon after.
However, many of his superiors thought that he was not an ideal candidate for the priesthood, as he lacked the basic education required to be a priest. However, it was widely accepted that he was a sharp young man. He also studied Latin, which was a useful tool for any missionary priest. This prompted his superiors to accept his priesthood request. However, he was ordained as a priest much later.
It also took him a lot of time to get his first mission. He prayed to the picture of St. Francis Xavier every day to be allowed to be sent on a mission. After 3 years of struggle, Damien got his first mission when his older brother fell sick before going to Hawaii and he was sent in his place.
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Working as a Missionary and Sainthood
On March 19, 1864, Damien landed at Honolulu Harbor, in Hawaii. On May 21, 1864, he was officially ordained as a priest under the religious order ‘Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary,’ at the ‘Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace,’ a church built by his own order.
The following year, he was sent on a mission to North Kohala, an island of Hawaii, where the people, mostly the natives, were struggling through poor living conditions. The place was plagued by widespread poverty, labor shortage, and an ongoing health crisis.
The native Hawaiians had a high mortality rate, as the island had seen an influx of outsiders from Europe and Asia, who had brought many new diseases with them, to which the Hawaiians were not immune. There was a widespread epidemic of diseases such as smallpox, cholera, and syphilis. Back then, there was no cure for most of these diseases.
However, it being a busy port, it was impossible to prevent foreigners from visiting the island. As a result, thousands of Hawaiians became victims of such vile diseases. The worst of them was leprosy, which had come to the island via Chinese workers, who had arrived on the island in large groups in the 1830s and the 1840s.
Leprosy was considered to be a highly contagious and incurable disease back then. Thus, Hawaiian King Kamehameha V, along with the ‘Hawaiian Legislature,’ passed an act, which stated that in order to stop the spread of the disease, the most serious cases would be shifted to Kalawao (later known as Kalawao County). Thus, around 8,000 native Hawaiians were sent to the place.
The government also ignored the people suffering from the disease. They were not provided with adequate resources to fend for themselves. They could not farm due to their disease. In other words, they were left to die alone.
The local bishop could not decide whether to send missionaries to the place or not. He did not want to push any of his priests to an imminent death. However, as it was believed that 95 percent of all humans were immune to leprosy, many priests volunteered to go there. Damien was one of the four priests who went to the county to take care of the leprosy-affected population and to preach the word of God to them.
He arrived in the county in 1873 and was saddened to see how poorly the patients lived there, without anybody to care for them. There was no law and order in the colony, and most of the inhabitants had become alcoholics. The place was badly in need of spiritual and physical healing.
He took charge of the rehabilitation of the colony. He became the leader of all operations. He motivated people and began the construction of churches, schools, and houses. The church St. Philomena was thus constructed and still stands there.
Damien took care of the patients and buried the dead in a proper Christian manner. Eventually, the colony became habitable. He was to take turns with three other missionaries to help the people, but he grew attached to the people and requested to be allowed to stay with them.
Death & Legacy
Father Damien worked for the colony for 16 years and did a great deal of spiritual and physical work for them. However, while working there, his health deteriorated. In 1884, he got infected with leprosy. Despite his illness and the severity of his symptoms, he kept working.
He finally passed away on April 15, 1889. The day is now celebrated as a minor public holiday in Hawaii.
He was later described as a “martyr of charity” and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1995. He attained sainthood in 2009, after getting canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.
He is worshipped as the patron saint of the Diocese of Honolulu and of the entire state of Hawaii.