Kalaupapa National Historical Park Honored By Sainthood Bestowed On Father Damien

A sacred hula was performed at Kalaupapa National Historical Park in honor of the recent canonization of Saint Damien of Moloka`i. NPS photos.

Sainthood recently bestowed on a 19th century Catholic priest who cared for Hawaiians afflicted with leprosy was celebrated at Kalaupapa National Historical Park, which tells the stories of those who were isolated on the northern shores of Molokai.

Born in Tremeloo, Belgium, in 1840, Joseph De Veuster, who became known as Father Damien, found himself in Hawaii in 1864 when he filled in as a missionary for his brother, who was too sick to go. He arrived during the early days of Kalawao’s history, when people with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, were being rounded up throughout the Hawaiian Islands and exiled to the isolated settlement on Moloka`i.

According to National Park Service historians, De Veuster was ordained in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace on May 31 and took the name of Damien. His first calling was on the big island of Hawai`i, where he spent eight years, according to the Park Service. He often traveled great distances to minister to the people of his districts of Puna, followed by Kohala and Hamakua. In 1873 he learned of the need for priests to serve the 700 Hansen’s disease victims confined on the island of Moloka`i. He and three other priests volunteered to go in succession. Damien was the first, and soon he was on a boat carrying cattle and 50 patients bound for Kalawao.

Damien was the most famous but not the first caregiver or religious worker to arrive at Kalawao. He followed Congregational ministers, Catholic priests, Mormon elders, and family and friends of patients who went voluntarily to Kalawao to help. Slowly, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope. He spoke the Hawaiian language. Assisted by patients, he built houses, constructed a water system, and planted trees. He also organized schools, bands, and choirs. He provided medical care for the living and buried the dead. He expanded St. Philomena Catholic Church. Not a "retiring" personality, Damien did not hesitate to badger the Hawaiian government and his church for more resources. These efforts attracted worldwide attention, resulting in a heightened awareness of the disease and the plight of its victims.

Damien was the most famous but not the first caregiver or religious worker to arrive at Kalawao. He followed Congregational ministers, Catholic priests, Mormon elders, and family and friends of patients who went voluntarily to Kalawao to help. Slowly, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope. He spoke the Hawaiian language. Assisted by patients, he built houses, constructed a water system, and planted trees. He also organized schools, bands, and choirs. He provided medical care for the living and buried the dead. He expanded St. Philomena Catholic Church. Not a "retiring" personality, Damien did not hesitate to badger the Hawaiian government and his church for more resources. These efforts attracted worldwide attention, resulting in a heightened awareness of the disease and the plight of its victims.

... During Father Damien’s years at Kalawao, others came to help. A number of priests spent varying lengths of time. In 1886 Joseph Dutton arrived, followed in 1888 by Mother Marianne Cope and two of her sisters from the Order of St. Francis. They, along with four Brothers of the Sacred Heart who arrived in 1895, carried Damien’s work into the next century.

Father Damien had lived in Kalawao 12 years when it was confirmed that he had contracted Hansen’s disease. Although the disease is not highly contagious, Damien had not been careful about hygiene. Over the years he had done nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl shared with other patients. He shared his pipe. And he did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores.

Damien was 49 years old when he died April 15, 1889, at Kalawao with Mother Marianne at his bedside. Shortly before his death, he wrote his brother Pamphile, "I am gently going to my grave. It is the will of God, and I thank Him very much for letting me die of the same disease and in the same way as my lepers. I am very satisfied and very happy." He was buried in the cemetery next to his church, St. Philomena. The people of Kalawao had lost their strongest voice.

Damien’s death was widely noted throughout Hawai`i and in Europe. As the years passed, his life of devotion served to inspire thousands. Because Kalaupapa remained an isolation settlement and the world could not come to his church and grave, Damien’s remains were exhumed in 1936 and reburied at Louvain, Belgium. In 1995 a relic composed of the remains of his right hand was returned to his original grave at Kalawao, to the great joy of Kalaupapa and the rest of Hawai`i. Damien’s life of service to the sick and outcast continues to serve as an inspiration.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park was created in 1980 in part to honor and remember the legacy of Father Damien and those he served in the midst of suffering, and often times, the triumph of the human spirit over great adversity.

The Catholic Church honored Father Damien on October 11 when it bestowed sainthood on him. A delegation from the park, including Superintendent Stephen Prokop, traveled to the Vatican to attend the canonization. That ceremony launched a month-long celebration at Kalaupapa.

Comments

Hi Kurt,
I enjoyed your posting so much. As a child growing up in the late 50's and 60's, and attending Catholic school, I remember learning about Father Damien. I was always fascinated by him - his story and his sacrifices. He was truly an inspiration to me. All though I did not grow up and become a missionary (which I dreamed about as a child) I did become a teacher - a profession that enables me to touch the lives of lots of children. I was delighted when he was canonized in October.
My husband and I are planning a trip to Maui in September of 2010, and I'm hoping to visit Moloka'i for a day or two. I would dearly love to take the hike down to Kalaupapa to visit the colony. It would be such a reverent experience for me - to actually walk where a special Saint lived, worked, and suffered.
Can you offer me any advice how to go about accomplishing this. Should we fly over, rent a car. Should we get a motel and plan to stay overnight?
How would I make arrangements to visit once we hike down (yes, we are in good shape). Is the hike scary and/or dangerous?
Thank you in advance if you have a chance to respond.
God bless,
Susan