Saint Damien

#152 in the Moʻolelo series

“They said ʻthis is your last place. This is where you are going to stay and die.”

Kalaupapa has become world famous as a story of resilience in the face of separation. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, was called “maʻi kaʻawale” – the separating sickness. Joseph de Veuster was born in Belgium in 1840. His brother had been called to Hawaiʻi, but became ill and Joseph volunteered to take his place. Upon becoming an ordained priest, de Veuster took the name Damien. Hansenʻs disease was first found in Hawaiʻi in 1848. In response to the outbreak of Hansen’s/leprosy, which was also called “maʻi pākē” and “maʻi aliʻi,” because of who had been known to have the disease in its early period, Kamehameha V established the Kalaupapa settlement in 1866.

Saint Damien, picture by William Brigham (source: wikimedia commons)

The “colony,” as John Tayman has called it (see his book below), existed for 7 years before Damien’s arrival. Damien’s work helped make the settlement livable, constructed needed buildings and facilities. One visitor described Damien this way:

His cassock was worn and faded, his hair tumbled like a school-boy’s, his hands stained and hardened by toil; but the glow of health was in his face, the buoyancy of youth in his manner; while his ringing laugh, his ready sympathy, and his inspiring magnetism told of one who in any sphere might do a noble work, and who in that which he has chosen is doing the noblest of all works. This was Father Damien.

 Charles Warren Stoddard, who visited Kalawao in 1884

After 16 years in the colony, Father Damien succumbed to Hansen’s in 1889. Damien was not the only martyr at Kalaupapa. Mother Marianne Cope worked selflessly at Kalaupapa for 29 years. In 1980, Kalaupapa was made into a National Historic Park. The National Park Service had this to say of Damien:

Damien’s death was widely noted throughout Hawai`i and in Europe. As the years passed, his life of devotion served to inspire thousands. Because Kalaupapa remained an isolation settlement and the world could not come to his church and grave, Damien’s remains were exhumed in 1936 and reburied at Louvain, Belgium. In 1995 a relic composed of the remains of his right hand was returned to his original grave at Kalawao, to the great joy of Kalaupapa and the rest of Hawai`i.
Father Damien in 1878 (source: wikimedia commons)

In order to be considered a saint, Damien had to be shown to have performed miracles. The Catholic Church found, upon investigation, some of the healing Damien performed to be miraculous. In October 2009 Damien was canonized by Pope Francis and became Saint Damien. As most know, there is a modernist sculpture of Damien that sits in front of the Hawaiʻi State capitol, recognition of the centrality of his generous sacrifice for the people of Hawaiʻi.

Video on Damien’s canonization from Catholic Online

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