Two third-century physicians — Damien and Cosmas — were brothers by birth as well as in their service to mankind. Following in the footsteps of their master, Jesus Christ, they practiced their healing arts without charge, seeing all people as equally God’s children — all equally deserving of compassion and comfort. Refusing to renounce their faith during Diocletian’s persecution, the brothers went joyfully to their martyrdom — their death as much as their life awakening many souls to Christ love.
Listening to their devout mother read them the lives of the early Christian saints and martyrs, young Joseph de Veuster and his older brother, fired with spiritual enthusiasm, vowed to be like the saints Damien and Cosmas, to become priests and physicians and to give their lives in service to those in greatest need.
In 1873, at the age of thirty-three, Father Damien — for he had taken this name — rode a turbulent sea into the leper settlement on an isolated peninsula of the island of Molokai. His fellow passengers were fifty men, women, and children afflicted with leprosy and ordered by the Hawaiian government to join the 720 resident lepers.
What he found shocked his compassionate heart to the core: filth and degradation, human bodies hideously deformed, the lepers barely subsisting, living in squalor. The place of worship, the St. Philomena chapel, was a depressing box, without steeple or bell. And yet the lepers were so overjoyed that Damien had come to minister to them, so eager to welcome him and be near him, that Damien’s heart soared above the horror assaulting his senses: a grim reality so far from the magical world of his happy childhood in Tremeloo, Belgium, where the religious life had seemed so naturally of a piece with the clean air, the healthy farm life, and the love and laughter all around him, where God had felt so near in the beauty of nature.
To his new flock he vowed to serve mass every morning in the little chapel and every evening to give a vesper service. The rest of each day he would devote to those dying or critically ill. What he had undertaken he would carry through alone — for his beloved brother had taken a different path. At the end of his first day, Damien knelt before the altar, before the figure of Christ crucified, and gave thanks to God for allowing him to serve these His children so desperately in need. In his soul he felt Christ speaking: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did It to me.”
So universal was the fear of contagion that no missionary before Father Damien had dared to mix freely with the Hawaiian lepers, who before his coming had seen the foreign religious among them as hypocritical, preaching the life of Christ but always at a safe distance. Damien, knowing that he was day by day exposing himself to this most feared disease of his time, joined his flock not only as priest — touching their diseased bodies as he administered the sacraments — but also as physician — carrying a black bag filled with native as well as Western remedies for treating fever, pain, respiratory infectious diseases, diarrhea; and spending hours each day cleaning and dressing weeping sores and ulcers — and even as friend — dipping his hand along with the others gathered into the communal calabash of poi, sharing a smoke from a pipe passed from leper to leper.
Quickly learning Hawaiian, Father Damien ministered to the people with a broad and ready smile and with contagious faith in the goodness of God, in His loving-kindness toward His children. So genuine was his love for the lepers that they flocked to him with open hearts and open arms. And not only the people of Molokai. Damien’s private joy was to stand outside his little dwelling making a peculiar call of his own devising. Within moments the air would be filled with the flapping wings of dozens of chickens, flying down from their perches in nearby trees. Landing on his outstretched arms, on his head and shoulders, the chickens would nestle against Damien’s person, making gentle and affectionate sounds as they pecked at the corn he held up for this, his second flock.
From the beginning, Father Damien had opened every service with these words: “We lepers come into Your presence, Almighty God. . . .” From the beginning, he was one with his flock: not yet in the literal sense, but in spirit, in joyful surrender to God’s will. By 1878, five years after his arrival on Molokai, Damien was in the early stages of leprosy: difficulty walking, incipient lesions on his face, and a graphic awareness of what lay before him. Humbly he prayed for the strength to finish the work he had begun: chapels, churches, homes for the people, hospitals, much of the work done by his own hands. He prayed too for the grace to continue serving till his soul left his body. Kneeling before the altar of St. Philomena’s, Damien felt God very near, and in His nearness, Damien’s human fear of the suffering that lay ahead vanished and gave way to an overwhelming joy: “The good God knows what is best for my sanctification, and in this conviction I pray daily, “Thy will be done.”
In 1888, a year before his passing, Damien’s beloved St. Philomena’s was destroyed in a violent tropical storm. Undaunted, he envisioned a much larger and more beautiful church. Again he prayed to God for the strength to complete what was to be his last building project. And complete it he did. Day after day Father Damien dragged his crippled body to the work site, a stonecutter’s hammer held in his wounded and heavily bandaged hand, his cassock grey with grime and tattered from hard use, his hair disheveled, his disfigured face seamed with cement dust and dirt, but his eyes dancing with joy as he poured his last strength into building God’s church, St. Philomena’s.
To the nuns who late in his life had come to help him care for the lepers, especially for the orphans among them, Father Damien cried out blissfully, “Now, Sisters, I have finished the work our dear Lord has given me to do, and I am ready now to go home.” To his beloved brother he wrote, “Pray for me who am dragging myself gently toward my tomb, that the good God fortify me and give me the grace of perseverance and a good death.” In his last days he had written, “I am the happiest of men, for I serve the Lord through the poor and sick children rejected by everyone else.” And so it was that, on April 15, 1889, Father Damien blissfully rejoined his heavenly Beloved.
All the world is my friend
When I learn how to share my love—
When I stretch out my hand and smile,
When I live from above.
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing