Father Damien cared for lepers on the island of Molokai. This was at a time when the disease was contagious if folks weren't careful. He died of the leprosy. and now more than a century after his death, a date has been set for his canonization.
Hawaii’s own saint is known by many in Hawaii who have grown up with the stories of Father Damien’s heroism. A statue in honor of him shows the disease etched into his face along with the lines of a face aged but graceful, as he was said to be. The lepers loved him. When many of the last vestiges of the colony on Molokai at Kalaupapa were removed, there was a particular kind of sad remembrance of him and the sufferings of people who lived confined on an island with a feared disease miles away from friends and family.
Father Damien was beatified by John Paul II, a step toward sainthood in 1995. The last hurdles requiring documentation of a second miracle has been met, the first condition reached prior to beatification and full canonization can be given now. The date is set for October 11.
Joseph de Veuster in 1840, who was to become Father Damien, went to Hawaii in 1864 along with other missionaries of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He began his ministry to leprosy patients on the island of Molokai, one of the islands in the Hawaiian chain, in a remote area called Kalaupapa. 8000 people had been banished during an epidemic of leprosy that swept the islands in the 1850s. Father Damien died of the disease, formerly known as Hansen’s disease, at the age of 49 in 1889. His remains were taken to Belgium and buried after being exhumed in the 1930’s, but a relic was returned to be interred in Molokai.
Father Damien became known throughout Europe, Hawaii and the rest of the United States for his sacrifices on behalf of the lepers. One man who visited him, Charles Stoddard, wrote this in 1884 of the priest who bathed, bandaged sores, fed and cared at the bedside of patients with leprosy or Hansen’s disease:
“His cassock was worn and faded, his hair tumbled like a school-boy’s, his hands stained and hardened by toil; but the glow of health was in his face, the buoyancy of youth in his manner; while his ringing laugh, his ready sympathy, and his inspiring magnetism told of one who in any sphere might do a noble work, and who in that which he has chosen is doing the noblest of all works. This was Father Damien.”
The isolation laws were removed in 1969 and many patients transferred to other parts of Hawaii in the 1980’s, however 24 still remain. They have memories handed down to them about Damien and their own experiences with the disease and their banishment up until four decades ago. Some of them live in Honolulu, a handful in Kalaupapa. A man named Boogie is one who remains on Molokai where members of his family who had the disease are buried. At age 67 he is the youngest of the remaining patients. He goes off island to Honolulu to shop and is an advocate for those who are part of the community of lepers. He reveres Father Damien, as they all do, and as they tend the gravesites of loved ones they remember the priest who will be formally honored for sainthood later this year.