Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, was little known throughout Europe when St. Damien of Molokai was born in Belgium in 1840.
Bur when he died at the age of 49, people all over the world learned about it because of him. They knew that compassion could soften the ravages of this disease.
Damien and his brother both belonged to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. It was his brother who was first assigned to the Hawaiian Islands. Because of illness, he could not go. It was Damien who quickly volunteered. In 1864, he arrived at his mission in Hawaii. After nine years as a missioner, he requested to serve as a chaplain on Molokai.
There was no available treatment for leprosy. By 1870 the disease had reached epidemic proportions. Molokai was a remote island where those suffering from leprosy were dispatched into exile. Conditions were horrific. For those put ashore on Molokai there was no return.
Damien was part of a team of four chaplains that would take that assignment for three months each year. Soon he volunteered to remain permanently to care for the people’s physical, spiritual and emotional needs. In time he became the most effective advocate to obtain promised government support. His ‘parish’ began to grow. There were new homes, as well as a church, a school, an orphanage. He also obtained the assistance of a community of Sisters. Morale improved considerably.
One day Damien placed his foot in scalding water by accident but felt no pain. After eleven years of work there, that was the first sign that he contracted the disease. He wrote: “I have no doubt about the nature of the disease. I am calm, resigned and very happy in the midst of my people. God knows what is best for my sanctification and I gladly repeat: “thy will be done”.
St. Damien shared his spiritual secret. “I find my consolation in the one and only companion who will never leave me; Our Savior in the Eucharist. Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the most tender of friends”. No wonder Damien became a “Leper for Christ”.
Fr. Theodore Walsh, C.P.