Father Damien of Molokai (1840-1889)

"During your long travelling road homewards please do not forget the narrow road”
–Fr. Damien of Molokai

Joseph De Veuster, more widely known by his religious name, Damien, was born on January 3, 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium. He received his name of Damien when he joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and became a Roman Catholic priest for this missionary institute in 1860. It may not be surprising that Damien joined the priesthood because three of his six siblings also joined the religious life.1 However, Damien also possessed great blacksmith skills and his father pressured him to eventually take over and run the family farm. Despite this opportunity, Damien could not ignore the larger calling in his heart to do greatness and help others. Great examples of martyrs, missionaries, and saints were frequently portrayed to Damien in the form of stories that his mother told. From an early age, Damien had a special interest in Saint Francis Xavier and prayed that he could have a similar opportunity to act in this type of heroic manner. This opportunity began to manifest itself when Damien decided to join a missionary order of priesthood.2

From early on, Damien’s superiors were skeptical of his ability to be a priest because he was uneducated and they only allowed him to because of the Latin that he learned from his brother.3 Although Damien was not as educated as some of his peers, he quickly revealed his strength of reaching out to help others.4 Damien’s devotion to priesthood expanded through his passion for missionary work. His desire to serve others eventually became a reality, three years later, when he was finally sent to Hawaii where his missionary work would define him as a leader.5

Challenge Discussion
“As for me, I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all for Christ.” –Fr. Damien of Molokai

Missionary work was the central focus of Damien’s priestly life. This specific practice was a difficult one to live out. Damien’s call to be a missionary extended to the point of self-sacrifice. Through his mission of self-sacrifice, he lived according to the example of Jesus Christ. Damien welcomed and prayed for opportunities where he could further emulate his life around Jesus’s. Soon after he was sent to Hawaii to do missionary work, the outbreak of several diseases occurred, including leprosy. When the quarantined leprosy colony of Kalaupapa was created in Molokai, Hawaii, it was in desperate need of resources and aid. Father Damien was faced with the challenge of risking his life to serve this population. Despite the risk, he was the first to volunteer to assist the poor people there.6 He volunteered his service with utmost sincerity asking his Monsignor, “if you will be kind enough to allow it, I will go to Molokai and labour for the poor lepers whose wretched state of bodily and spiritual misfortune has often made my heart bleed within me.”7

Priests have a certain duty to live like Jesus Christ and, therefore, live selflessly. Father Damien’s act of volunteering his missionary services to the leprosy colony in Molokai was all the more selfless because living in this colony among the lepers was virtually a death sentence. Anyone who went to aid the lepers did so with the knowledge of their fate eventually being that of a leper. Father Damien faced this personal pressure of fulfilling his missionary at the price of sacrificing his own life. Thus, volunteering oneself to help this sick population was a courageous act of sacrificing one’s life for them. This utmost sacrifice can only be achieved with a sincerity of heart. Advocating justice for the sick and oppressed was one of the biggest drivers of Father Damien’s work in Molokai. Father Damien’s practice of missionary priesthood clearly exemplified justice, courage, and honesty.
Although priesthood was the foundational basis where Damien drew his strengths from, it also served as part of the institutional pressure. Damien’s superiors in his missionary order tried constricting his self-sacrificial practice of service. They gave him strict orders, conducive of the time, to not come in physical contact with the lepers. Father Damien went beyond his superiors’ restrictive orders so that he could fully serve the sick with no limits or restraints, further emulating Jesus Christ.8 Father Damien carried out his practice by advocating for the lepers and receiving the necessary supplies in which they were previously lacking, such as wood for solid homes, clothes, and pipes for a functioning water supply.9 Father Damien’s relationship with the lepers he served extended beyond missionary service. He befriended them and helped restore their humanity that was wounded from isolation.10 His work in serving the lepers knew no boundaries.

At the same time that Damien was fulfilling his practice as a missionary, he was also on a path towards martyrdom and sainthood. His sacrificial act of volunteering his service to help those sick in Molokai reveals the standard of excellence of self-sacrifice that was present throughout his priesthood. Father Damien stood up for this standard despite the constant institutional pressures he faced. The institute of the Hawaiian government forced the native people infected with leprosy into exile in Molokai. This discrimination was rooted in politics and was a constant barrier to justice for the people of Molokai. Father Damien had to incessantly implore the government to provide necessary and basic resources for the lepers at Molokai since their forced exile left them without these. “But, not withstanding such differences, no sincere man could feel a real barrier intercourse with one so good as Father Damien, and on his side he always showed a true and wholesome charity while he dealt with views which he considered erroneous.”11 Father Damien exhibited his ability to stand up to the government’s pressure to neglect a vulnerable population through his self-sacrifice to serve these people until his death.

Another institutional pressure that indirectly developed from the larger institutional pressure of isolating the lepers was the lack of moral structure. Since the lepers were shipped to this isolated island and left to fend for themselves, this small civilization was in chaos. They needed a leader. Without one, no one enforced even the most basic moral standards. The people of Kalaupapa engaged in destructive behavior such as taking advantage of and hurting one another. Father Damien led the people to a morally righteous path. “’Kindness to all, charity to the needy, a sympathising hand to the sufferers and the dying, in conjunction with a solid religious instruction to my listeners, have been my constant means to introduce moral habits among the lepers.’”12 His endless devotion to them brought this community together and helped to restore the life that was taken from them.


Father Damien was able to overcome the challenge of injustice of the lepers through the virtue of loving kindness. Although he was also working towards achieving justice for the lepers in Molokai, loving kindness ultimately fueled Father Damien’s fight for this suppressed group. By emulating Christ’s life, Father Damien based his service on the notion of loving his neighbor. Most people neglected and abandoned the leper population due to their illness and out of fear of contracting it. Despite this common view, Father Damien displayed endless love towards them which resulted in sharing in their suffering and illness when he contracted the disease and died from it.

Choice-worthy Good

Father Damien’s sacrificial act of serving the isolated and oppressed lepers of Molokai reveals his choice-worthy good of compassion over oppression and helplessness. The Hawaiian government put economic policy over justice and forced all those infected with leprosy into exile, regardless if it meant tearing apart the most basic and fundamental social unit of family. The chaotic and unstructured settlement of the lepers in the deserted area on Molokai were direct results of the abandonment and suppression of them. Father Damien was compassionate to this group and saw their abandonment as an opportunity to care for those in most need of it. He provided the practical aid necessary to assist the lepers with their medical condition and living condition on this settlement as well as spiritually leading them to live moral lives. 13 Since Father Damien was a holy and obedient man, he did not try to directly challenge the unjust Hawaiian government and go against his superiors. Instead, he focused on the situation at hand and worked on improving it at the most immediate and ground level. He was able to make his compassion known to the lepers through his constant presence to them.

Cultural Ill

The cultural ill is the oppression of the sick through the Hawaiian government’s isolation of this afflicted and vulnerable group of inhabitants suffering from leprosy to the remote peninsula of Molokai. The 1865 legislation of the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy secured this injustice. Not only did the government oppress the lepers by exiling them but they further suppressed them by failing to provide them with adequate resources necessary to survival and well-being. 14 This governmental injustice has deeper roots in economic interest as well.

The booming sugar industry in Hawaii required more labor than what was able to be provided by the native Hawaiian inhabitants. This focus on economic development pushed the Hawaiian government to replace the native laborers with more inexpensive Asian laborers. The government justified their actions through the social Darwinism that existed surrounding the notion that Asian laborers were better workers. The government’s economic vision led many people to claim that the native Hawaiians were unable to adapt to the changing environment and were therefore inferior to the Asian workers. The social Darwinism that drove this belief helps to explain why “’lepers,’ who had previously been left alone as long as they did not present menace to the public, were rounded up like criminals.” 15 This discrimination and injustice of the government is further revealed through its uneven administration of the quarantine policy. While the poorest and most impoverished native lepers were always sent to exile in Molokai, foreigners with leprosy had the option to leave the country as they wished. The Hawaiian government was also greatly focused on quarantining their infected inhabitants in hopes of proving to America that they were not a threat to the sugar industry and more significantly, to annexation.16

Father Damien faced this large institutional challenge where the scope of its policy expanded far beyond the control of a single priest. However, Father Damien stood up for the justice and compassion for others by his missionary work for this deprived community. His compassion and devotion to aiding and improving the quality of life for the lepers was far-reaching, gaining attention and help from all over the world. Father Damien often wrote letters to his family and friends. This allowed his message and plea for help to spread worldwide and enter the public eye through newspapers in Europe as well as the United States; thus, taking an originally isolated problem and uniting it to humanity. Although the news stories of his missionary work often pointed the heroic spotlight on him, he remained all the more humble and would petition even further on the behalf of the suffering. 17 Father Damien steadfastly remained true to his compassion and missionary work. This allowed him to face the challenges posed to him where he could wholeheartedly lead those afflicted by sickness and injustice to a more fulfilling life.

Brianna Farens

Works Cited

  1. NIS. “Father Damien ‘The Greatest Belgian of All Time.’” 2013. Retrieved from: http://nos.nl/artikel/53452-pater-damiaan-de-grootste-belg-aller-tijden.html
  2. Schwager, Don. Servant of Love for the Lepers of Molokai: The Heroic Testimony of Damien de Veuster. The Sword of the Spirit. 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.swordofthespirit.net/bulwark/january2012p5.htm
  3. NIS 2013.
  4. Schwager 2012.
  5. SSCC Picpus Congregation of the Sacred Hearts. “Saint Damien De Veuster.” 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.ssccpicpus.com/en/saint-damien-de-veuster-87
  6. Ibid.
  7. Clifford, Edward. Father Damien: A Journey from Cashmere to His Home in Hawaii. MacMillan and Co.: London, 1889. (68). Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=spljAAAAMAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=father+damien+of+molokai+biography&ots=6tV6OySP9V&sig=cghgdo8SVtreWpBtIEs9TH_J_Mw#v=onepage&q=father%20damien%20of%20molokai%20biography&f=false
  8. Schwager 2012.
  9. Clifford 1889. (73-85).
  10. Schwager 2012.
  11. Clifford 1889. (98).
  12. Ibid (84).
  13. Schwager 2012.
  14. Tayman, John. The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai. Simon & Schuster Inc.: USA 2006. Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?id=rKUaLE6s1lgC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
  15. Moblo, Pennie. Blessed Damien of Moloka’i: The Critical Analysis of Contemporary Myth. Ethnohistory, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 700-701. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/482885?uid=2&uid=4&sid=21102879140671
  16. Herman, R. D. K. Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Power: Leprosy, Race, and Colonization in Hawai’i. Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-Being, Vol. 6 (2010), pp. 289. Retrieved from: http://www.ksbe.edu/spi/Hulili/Hulili_vol_6/12_Out_of_Sight_Out_of_Mind_Out_of_Power.pdf
  17. Schwager 2012.