May 9, 2009

Feast Day!

Father Damien de Veuster
Apostle to the Lepers
Born January 3rd, 1840 - Died of leprosy April 15th, 1889
Feast Day May 10th

Today is the feast day of one of my newest friends among the saints, Blessed Father Damien - soon to be SAINT Father Damien!!!! This year i heard of the tradition of picking or having someone pick a saint for you at the beginning of the year, this saint will be your special friend and patron for the year. Saint Damien is mine.

A few months ago i wrote an essay for a writing contest (that i didn't win) about Father Damien that i thought i would share with you today.

No Greater Love

“‘Death before death’ is what the ancient Egyptians called leprosy. It is a fit description. Down through the centuries it has been known as the most incurable and most dreaded of diseases.” Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, was and still is a mysterious and devastating ailment. The cause is, as well as how it is passed from one person to the next, is still unknown.

When a person is affected with the disease, they begin by gradually losing the sense of feeling in their skin. Parts of their body swell and start to decay. Limbs fall off; large sores appear and fester, giving off a repulsive smell. As the disease progresses, the victim becomes terribly disfigured; the nose may disappear and often the eyes are reduced to holes of pus. In short, they become a mass of decayed flesh.

The year is 1874 and the islands of Hawaii are still an independent country. For years the native people have been suffering from the scourge of leprosy. The Board of Health is very strict, searching out any who might have the disease, forcing them from their families and shipping them off to the island of Molokai. The conditions there are sub-human, there are no laws, no morals, no aid from the outside world. John Farrow writes, “The sentence of segregation meant a grim life-imprisonment in a hopeless place... Objects of repulsion, feared by all, they were not wanted on this earth and in every way were shown that the sooner their actual death occurred the better it would be for humanity.”

Molokai was a dreaded name, one that struck fear into the hearts of those who heard it. It was to this place that a priest from Belgium, Father Damien de Veuster volunteered to go, to care for the lepers, to help them. Those let off at the island were not allowed back on the ships, so Father Damien was volunteering himself for exile to what could be described as hell on earth. Who was this courageous man, you may ask?

Damien was born in Belgium in 1840 as Joseph de Veuster. His father wished him to become a merchant, but instead Joseph joined the order of Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1863. A few years later, Damien requested to be sent to the Hawaiian Islands as a missionary in the place of his brother who was supposed to go but was unable due to illness.

He was ordained a priest upon arriving at the Islands and was soon given a missionary parish on Hawaii, where he spent the next eleven years baptizing converts, building chapels and traveling all over the region. He came face to face with leprosy and was forced to send away parishioners who contracted the disease.

When the call came for missionary priests to minister to the outcasts of Molokai, Damien was the first to volunteer. Surely he was horrified at what he saw, but Damien knew that in order to help them, he would have to show no disgust. So he began, taking care not to show repulsion or fear and little by little earning the trust and respect of the island inhabitants. He visited the sick, bandaged their wounds, dug graves, made coffins, buried the dead, and administered religious services all by himself.

Debauchery, violence, poor shelter, lack of food, water, clothing, medicine and other supplies were major obstacles to Damien’s work, but with hard work and determination he was able to overcome them. He was known for being stubborn and hard-headed at times, but it was through his stubbornness, added to a deep faith in God, that the conditions of Molokai were able to improve.

On a hot, summer day in June, 1885 when Damien was forty-five years old, he began the Mass and turning to face his congregation, addressed them as, “My fellow lepers.” Damien had contracted leprosy. Even as the disease progressed, Damien never slowed down in his work and care for the sick. His new assistant, Brother Joseph, tried to convince Damien to take it easy, but Damien would not be stopped. He knew his time was limited, and he wanted to help his spiritual children as much as he could before his death.

Four years after contracting the disease, fifteen years after coming to Molokai, Damien’s work on earth was done and he passed away. The people of Molokai mourned the loss of their friend “Kamiano”, along with the rest of the world who had heard of this courageous rescuer of the abandoned. Today his remains rest in his home country of Belgium.

The story of Father Damien is inspiring to me because he is an amazing example of perseverance and dedication, both of which I struggle with. Through his example, I am trying to persevere in my daily tasks and in tasks I volunteer for. If Father Damien could persevere for fifteen years in horrifying conditions, doing what many considered unthinkable and impossible, then I can persevere in the little things that I do.

According to a definition of moral courage, Damien showed true moral courage by “taking a strong stance on a specific issue [the lepers] and defending it based on one’s personal beliefs or convictions regardless of danger or threats to personal safety.” His ministry to the lepers impacted the world by revealing to it the degradation of the care and treatment of lepers. Inspired by his example, people around the world began to take notice of these outcasts: sending money for aid, searching for medical cures and volunteering to care for them.

I leave you with the words inscribed on a monument to Damien in Hawaii, words that describe Damien’s life perfectly, “Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Farrow, John. Damien the Leper. New York: Image Books, 1954.
Boeynaems, Libert. "Father Damien (Joseph de Veuster)." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 25 Feb. 2009 .

Blessed Father Damien... Pray for us!

1 comment:

  1. I knew you'd like that book that I lent you about him... Didn't it make you want to go out and be a missionary?



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