Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai by Gavan DawsLike Father Damien of Molokai I had also once lived with lepers. Unlike him, however, I had lived with lepers at that time when modern medicine could already check the progress of the disease. So the lepers I had mingled with, although already scarred for life, were more or less already deemed cured. The most common physical deformity I remember of them, practically all of them, was the way their hands looked. It seemed leprosy never exempt any of its victims with this: the fingers fold at their middle joints, like one sometimes see in comatose people in a vegetative state. So when they try to hold something (e.g. a chess piece during a game) itd look like as if they had grabbed some glue and their fingers got stuck inwards to their palms.
How I got to be with lepers was not as dramatic as the story of Father Damien of Molokai. My grandparents contacted this disease, maybe in the early 1930s during the American Occupation. They then already had their respective families and were living miles apart: my grandfather was from an island town south of Luzon while my grandmother was from the north. It is still a mystery up to now how one could suddenly get the disease in the middle of a community with no known leper around or any history of the disease but these two were among those unfortunate ones. I do not know if they surrendered themselves voluntarily or were among those who at first tried to hide from those rounding up the lepers upon orders of the American authorities, but both ended up at the leper colony in Culion, a remote island like Father Damiens Molokai, at the Palawan group of islands similar to the Hawaiian islands where Molokai was.
The science of leprosy cure was still at its infancy at that time and they were probably both conscious that they had come to that beautiful island to die away from their families. They probably grieved for a long time, watched the sunrise and sunset for months, before finally casting their eyes upon each other and with their shared loneliness fell in love. They had three children and one of them--the middle child--was my father born in 1937, one of the 144 babies born that year in that leper colony.
About half a century before, during Father Damiens time, they still had no idea how leprosy is transmitted from a leper to a healthy person. One theory was that it is hereditary. Well, in our case this had been proven false. My father, his two siblings, their numerous children and grandchildren never showed signs of the disease.
I never met my grandfather. Apparently, after he and my grandmother were discharged from Culion he went back to his own family and died there. My grandmother, on the other hand, went to the Tala Leprosarium (now part of the Metro Manila area) where she got a house, raised many cats, established some businesses, and then, after my grandfather passed away, married another leper who had been cured (but with the same hands with folded fingers!), a veteran of World War 1. He was the grandfather I knew. And it was there at the Tala Leprosarium where I spent countless summer vacations and met my lepers. Id say those were among the happiest days of my young life. I was a pimply youth but when I was with my lepers I felt like I had the nicest complexion in that entire community and was ready to do a soap commercial.
Father Damien was born to a devout Catholic Belgian family. His elder brother was also a priest and a sister became a nun. Hawaii was then not yet a part of the USA. It was ruled by a monarch and its indigenous population was being decimated by diseases brought to the islands by white men. Among these was leprosy.
At that time no medicine had worked yet against this biblical scourge. It was a horrible disease and meant a slow and sure death. To get a picture of how it kills, imagine the human body like its is a finely sculptured piece of candlewax with wicks all over. Then each of these are lighted one by one. As the body melts itd take so many grotesque forms. That is leprosy.
It was one thing to volunteer to serve the diseased, but quite another to take the intimate measure of Kalawao (the leper colony in Molokai). Damiens ministry became a priesthood of worms, of ghastly sights and suffocating smells, of the most awful physical and spiritual misery. There were six hundred leprosy sufferers at the settlement; and, apart from the healthy Hawaiian kokua, Damien was the only man there with a sound, uncorrupted body--the only haole, certainly.
Other priests making brief visits were reduced, often enough, to speechlessness or weeping incoherence; later, they would write horror-struck letters about the experience, full of revolting detail and exclamation points. Even at second hand the horror was fresh. One of Damiens visiting colleagues told another how he saw in the hospital a young woman aged about twenty, whose right side was nothing but a swarm of worms, thousands and thousands of them. All the intestines were bared, he saw the ribs as in a skeleton, but she was not suffering. He saw a leprous man busy cutting off a joint from his finger with a piece of glass. Finally he succeeded, and threw it tranquilly out the window as if it was cured, saying: theres an end to my trouble. Apparently the blood in the finger was poisoned, and it was as if a worm was devouring him from inside.
Father Damien was just twenty-three when he left Europe as a missionary priest. Eventually, he was assigned--happily it must be added--to the leper settlement in Molokai where he served as pastor for sixteen years. A physically strong and robust man, many years passed before he himself got the disease. He went through the same sufferings as those of his flock. He succumbed to it on 15 April 1889. He was just 49 years old.
Father Damien of Molokai - Hawaii's First Saint
Joseph de Veuster was born in rural Belgium , the youngest of seven children. In place of his brother, Father Pamphile, who had been stricken by illness, he went as a missionary to the Sandwich Hawaiian Islands in He reached Honolulu in and was ordained a priest the same year. Moved by the miserable condition of the lepers whom the Hawaiian government had deported to Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai , he volunteered to take charge of the settlement. Damien, known for his compassion, provided spiritual, physical, and emotional comfort to those suffering from the debilitating and incurable disease.
This was Father Damien. No person is as central to the history of Kalawao and Kalaupapa as Joseph De Veuster, or, as he is best known to the world, Father Damien. Joseph De Veuster was born in Tremeloo, Belgium, in Pamphile was to serve as a missionary in the far distant "Sandwich Islands," but when it came time for him to depart he was too ill to go. His brother Joseph went in his place.
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In the s, the Hawaiian Islands suffered a severe leprosy epidemic. In order to contain the spread of the disease, those infected were isolated to the island of Molokai. Unfortunately, the Hawaiian government was remiss in their duties to properly care for the community of lepers and the suffering were abandoned to the island without any means to care for themselves. Ashore, they found no law and no organized society. Sexual immorality, violence, and drunkenness ignited by liquor made from tree roots became the way of life for the lepers. Hope was also abandoned and many of the inhabitants lived in despair.
When Damien de Veuster arrived in Hawaii in , he found an island-community beset by infections. Over the years, travelers and seamen had introduced diseases like influenza and syphilis. First reported in Hawaii in , leprosy devastated people in many ways. First, because the disease was highly contagious and untreatable until the s, people contracting it had no hope of recovery. This often led to deep depression among its sufferers.
Father Damien, also known as Blessed Damien of Molokai January 3, — April 15, , was a Roman Catholic missionary priest from Belgium who is most noted for caring and ministering to people with leprosy. He spent much of his life working with lepers in Hawaii, who were forced by government-sanctioned medical segregation to live on the island of Molokai. Upon his beatification by Pope John Paul II in , Damien was given a memorial feast day, celebrated on May 10, on the church calendar. He was also then conferred the official title of Blessed Damien of Molokai. Father Damien's tireless efforts to alleviate the suffering of leprosy, and, more importantly, to improve their self-dignity as human beings, earned him widespread respect throughout the world. Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged in his writings that Father Damien was an inspiration for his own efforts to alleviate the conditions of India's untouchables dalits.