Today was the feast of one of the most awesome priests in the communion of saints. (In my humble opinion.)
On this day in 1873, Father Damien de Veuster landed at the Kalaupapa Leper Colony on the island of Molokai. For the next 16 years, Fr Damien was priest, nurse, sheriff, teacher and father to the lepers of Molokai.
He contracted leprosy himself only ten years into this mission, and he didn’t live to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. But he was not forgotten. His heroic life of sacrifice has inspired generation after generation, and like St Francis, his appeal is universal.
By way of example:
- Six months after the missionary’s death, the celebrity author Robert Louis Stephenson exalted Fr Damien in an open letter to Rev Charles McEwan Hyde. Rev Hyde, a Congregationalist minister in Hawaii, was one of Fr Damien’s critics, and had dismissed him in his own open letter to Rev Gage, his Presbyterian counterpart in Hawaii. Stephenson, a Presbyterian himself, was scathing:
If that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage.
Ouch. Harsh, but true. Stephenson’s tract is an amazing piece of literature well worth reading.
- Half a century later, Mahatma Gandhi invoked Fr Damien as an inspiration:
The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.
- Pope Benedict canonised Fr Damien in 2009, but he is also venerated as a saint in the Anglican Communion and by some Lutheran congregations.
His ecumenical and inter-faith appeal notwithstanding, Fr Damien was “Catholic to his bootstraps.” His first priority upon landing at Kalaupapa was to reserve the Blessed Sacrament, knowing that he would need Christ’s sacramental presence to sustain him in the rest of his work.
Were it not for the constant presence of our Divine Master in our humble chapel, I would not have found it possible to persevere in sharing the lot of the afflicted of Molokai . . . Without the Blessed Sacrament a position like mine would be unbearable. But, having Our Lord at my side, I continue always to be happy and content.