• 10 May 19

May 10 - “St. Damien the Leper” © icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM. Happy Feast Day St. Damien!

Damien de Veuster volunteered to go as a missionary to Hawaii when he was 23 years old. Blessed with physical strength, he was also a skilled carpenter. Each place he was assigned on the islands, he built churches, sometimes even hewing the wood from jungle trees. He traveled great distances on foot to celebrate Mass whenever he found new converts. After nine years of his work he volunteered once again to go away -- this time to love with the lepers on Molokai.

Leprosy was one of Europe’s many gifts to Hawaii. In Damien’s day the disease was enshrouded by ignorance and was seen as a punishment from God -- not unlike AIDS in our day. Lepers were torn from their families and quarantined on a rocky coast of Molokai. Once there, they could never leave. They lived in abject poverty, with no medical attention, surrounded by despair. By volunteering to be their parish priest, Damien cut himself off from the rest of the world.

On Molokai, he built a church and homes for the lepers. He brought music back to them and encouraged them to sing. He painted his buildings bright colors. He ate with the lepers and shared their life. He personally dug graves for those who died. He fought with the government for better conditions. In time he, too, contracted the disease. To his bishop he wrote, “I am calm and resigned and very happy in the midst of my people.”

By the time he died, Damien’s efforts among lepers had born fruit. They lived in dignity, with better food and medical attention. Another priest had come to take Damien’s place, as had an energetic layman and a group of Franciscan nuns. His death forced the Western world to re-examine leprosy, as well as its attitude toward the disease. Today many see him as a patron saint for those who have AIDS.

Fr. Damien was canonized on October 11, 2009.