On my first flight to Hawaii where I lived for three years, I was impressed to hear the attendant tell in brief the story of Father Damian. Our plane had lots of people headed for an island vacation. I was amazed that Hawaiians had adopted Damian as one of their own, and were very proud of what he did for them.
Today the Catholic church celebrates the feast of St. Damian of Molokai. Damian was born in Belgium and joined the Missionary order of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He volunteered for the Hawaiian missions and was ordained in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu. He served on Hawaii--the Big Island--and on Oahu. At that time there seemed to be an epidemic of leprosy or Hansen's Disease. Since it was thought to be highly contagious, lepers were sent to a smaller island, Molokai to a settlement called Kalaupapa. The Hawaiian government assumed that the people could farm the land and support themselves, despite their disease. When Damian volunteered to be their pastor, he found sickness of body and rampant sickness of soul. Due in part to their illness, people found it close to impossible to farm the land. Many lived in rundown shacks because they did not have the energy to build houses. Fresh water was hard to come by. Morale and morality were at a low ebb.
Damian set to work to cure illness, build houses, schools, and a church.
He used his imagination and strength to fashion water pipes from bamboo to bring fresh water to the colony. His enthusiasm and energy set an example for people who until his arrival had little or no hope. Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous author, was not a Catholic, but he defended Damian who was criticized by a Protestant minister who referred to him as a sort of unwashed peasant. Stevenson's defence helped to spread the good news about the missionary priest's heroic efforts to do all he could for the people on Molokai. Mother Marianne of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse came and brought Sisters who would staff a hospital. Joseph Dutton, a native of Vermont and a Civil War veteran, came and offered his services full time. He became known as Brother Dutton. Doing what he could to bring hope to lepers, Father Damian made his life a sort of torch shining on a remote Hawaiian island. That torch beckoned people far and wide to come and help. Many did come and now Kalaupapa still has the leper colony which is much smaller. People in Hawaii never forgot the priest who became a leper with the lepers to bring Christ to them. May St. Damian pray for all of us, especially for all our Hawaiian people.