Father Damien

American Saints

Father Damien

In 1973, Harper and Row Publishers of New York published the book, Holy Man-Father Damien of Molokai written by Gavan Da. This book reveals the life of a man who gave himself in the service of poor lepers through a life of poverty, chastity and obedience in imitation of Jesus Christ.  This paper is a book-review that contains a summary of the book and an analysis.

The book begins at the deathbed of Fr. Damien. A doctor comes to visit him the day before his death and photographs Fr. Damien as he lay dying on the floor with only a straw mattress, a pillow and a single blanket to keep him warm.The doctor, not knowing he had taken a picture of a one-day saint of the Catholic Church, knew that Father Damien had but a short time to live. He was dying from leprosy. The world would someday call him “Damien the Leper”.

The story of Fr. Damien begins Jan. 3, 1840 at his birth. He was baptized Joseph, the youngest son and seventh of eight children of Frans and Anne-Catherine De Veuster, who were small farmers at Tremeloo, near Louvain, Belgium.They were Flemish speakers, who went to Communion four times a year and confessed as regular devout Catholics would do at that time. His mother would read aloud to the children about the lives of the saints. Three of the children besides himself gave their lives in the service of the Church. As a child he was known to be sociable, competitive and a trickster. However, Joseph was also religious. His mother discovered a hard board on his bed, which he used to mortify his flesh.

Auguste, his brother, later taking the name Brother Pamphile, became a religious in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Meanwhile, Joseph, at the age of thirteen, was big and strong enough to work in the fields with his father. Joseph followed in his brother’s footsteps and entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He took the habit on Feb. 2, 1858 under the religious name Brother Damien. His superiors thought that he was not a good candidate for the priesthood because he lacked education. However, he was not considered unintelligent. Because he learned his Latin well from his brother, his superiors decided to allow him to become a priest.

During his ecclesiastical studies, he used to pray everyday before a picture of St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, to be sent on a mission. His brother was assigned to the Hawaiian Islands as a missionary, but became ill. Damien asked to replace his brother even though he had not yet been ordained.The Congregation gave him permission and after a five-month voyage he arrived in Honolulu on Mar. 19, 1864.He was ordained a priest May 21, 1864 by Bishop Maigret.

As a new priest, he wrote to his parents about his experience in Hawaii

Here I am a priest, dear parents, here I am a missionary in a corrupt, heretical, idolatrous country. How great my obligations are! Ah! do not forget this poor priest running night and day over the volcanoes night and day in search of strayed sheep. Pray night and day for me, I beg You.

Fr. Damien was assigned to a large volcanic region, in which they worshipped a goddess. Because he traveled much, when a Hawaiian asked him where he lived, he pointed to his saddle and said, “this is my home.” He began to learn the local language. In his homilies he preached against the open sexual misbehavior of the natives. Adultery, concubinage and pagan customs were rampant at the time. One pagan custom involved the sacrifice of a pig or chicken to please the god aumakua. Fr. Damien suffered from loneliness and “black thoughts”, which was melancholy. He pleaded with his superiors to send him another priest. He even went so far as to send a letter requesting that his brother, no longer ill, be sent to him. Bishop Maigret asked his priests if any would be interested in serving at Molokai, the leprosy settlement.

The faithful had been living and dying in desperate conditions without the sacraments. Fr. Damien was ready to be the first to go and on May 10, 1873, they had their first priest.The Board of Health had been conducting a strict isolation and segregation policy to keep leprosy under control. It had become an epidemic in Hawaii and all measures were sought to contain it, thus the creation of the leprosy settlement at Molokai. The disease was believed to be the fault of the white man, haole, who brought the disease to the islands.

Fr. Damien was physically strong and worked hard. He was emotionally strong and overcame his fears of the disease. Most importantly, he was a strong father, who provided for the needs of his spiritual children.

He began to build hospitals, orphanages, houses and all kinds of buildings and by 1888 had helped to build many of the 374 buildings on the island. Despite the apparent contagiousness of the disease, Hawaiians needed to be touched and affirmed physically.

Fr. Damien saw the first hand horror of the disease by the horrible smell of rotting flesh as swarms of worms bared the intestines and ribs of the victims. At first he had a terrible repugnance to the fetid odor, the disfigured faces and the sores in which pus oozed out. A leper was considered an untouchable. Fr. Damien touched all and worked with all. He used to invite people into his house and would use it as a place for some who had no home. He made flutes for the fingerless, held races with children that had only stumps for feet and had holes cut in the floor of St. Philomena to allow the sick to spit on the ground. He tried as many innovations as possible to help the people in any way that he could.

He not only acted as physician but healed their souls as well.There were two hundred Catholics among the six hundred at the settlement upon Fr. Damien’s arrival. Within ten days he had twenty catechumens, the following week he performed thirty baptisms, and by the end of his first six months he had four hundred catechumens.

In addition to this, he began perpetual Eucharistic adoration at the settlement. This gave the lepers a place to pour out their hearts to the Lord in the midst of their sufferings. Because of his spiritual successes, the Protestants among the other islands became outraged at “the papist”. Fr. Damien, in the meantime, suffered from terrible loneliness and was unable to go to confession regularly. All his life, he begged the bishop and his superiors to send him someone.

Because many were fearful of the disease, Fr. Damien had to confess from the shore by shouting to a priest on a ship and then receiving absolution. Finally, Fr. Andre Burgerman, a Dutchman, was sent to help him, but he ended up being more of a thorn in the side than help. Constant disagreements and complaints occurred between the two until finally Fr. Andre was believed to have caught the disease and was removed from the settlement for care.

Fr. Albert Montiton, a Frenchman was assigned to help Fr. Damien. He believed that leprosy was transmitted by sexually immoral people and was the result of syphilis, and he also accused Fr. Damien of sexual immorality. Fr. Albert put Fr. Damien through a bad period by invading his territory, ordering him around and telling him how to be a priest. However, Fr. Albert was a sick man with elephantiasis and was later transferred out of Molokai for health reasons.

Again Fr. Damien was alone and his superiors were of no support to him. A long battle erupted between Fr. Damien and Bishop Koeckemann and his superior Fr. Fouesnel, who believed Damien to be a troublemaker, unable to get along with other priests. Fr. Damien suffered not only from his superiors. In 1882, he began to experience pain in his left leg and his feet, yet he still had not contracted the disease after ten years. Before he arrived at the settlement, he wrote to his brother and stated, “As for me, since I am coming to the leprosy settlement, I have confided to Our Lord, His Holy Mother and St. Joseph the matter of health.”

Walter Murray Gibson, a protestant minister and doctor became the primary political leader in Hawaii under King David Kalakaua. He allocated five percent of the nation’s resources to control the disease. This amounted to six dollars for each leper, and each person was allocated one cent per month for drugs. He made leprosy political and brought Catholicism into politics. Dr. Gibson was a thorn for Fr. Damien. Fr. Damien had to ask for supplies from him and Dr. Gibson often gave them begrudgingly.

There were three theories about how leprosy was transmitted: genetics, sexual misconduct and touch. Many remedies were tried including a blend of dog manure and molasses, yet nothing seemed to work. In 1883, Dr. Eduard Christian Arning, a second-generation student of Gerhard Hansen, who discovered the Bacillus leprae, came to Molokai to do research. He discredited the syphilis theory and was of great help to Fr. Damien at the settlement. By 1883, Fr. Damien had lost the feeling in his leg and redness appeared on his foot — he had contracted leprosy. In 1885, a small leprous tubercle appeared on the left lobe of his ear and his eyebrows fell off.

He had asked Our Lady of Montaigu for the privilege of serving for twelve years in 1863 and now, twenty-two years later he had the disease. He wrote letters to his brother and mother informing them of the disease. Upon opening the letter, his mother died of a heart attack. She died with a photograph of Fr. Damien and a picture of the Blessed Virgin in her hand. Still without a priest to assist him, Fr. Damien begged for assistance. The bishop and his superior, thinking him a trouble maker, received news that he had written a personal letter, which was published in a newspaper. The letter complained that the bishop, the government and his community would not support the settlement. This problem caused him great turmoil and made his superiors reluctant to send him help.

Fr. Founsel, his superior, would not let Fr. Damien come to Honolulu to go to confession or seek treatment. Hundreds of people, hearing about the plight of Fr. Damien, offered to come to help him. One such person was Ira Barnes Dutton, who had fought in the American Civil War, separated from his wife, had been a heavy drinker, and who still wanted to come. Because he entered the Catholic Church and desired to do penance until his death, he came and was a big help to Fr. Damien. Still, Fr. Founsel, the Bishop, and Dr. Gibson gave him terrible trouble.

Fr. Conrady, hearing of his misfortune came to the island. Soon the Franciscan sisters arrived as well. Fr. Conrady began to write letters that ended up in newspapers. The letters revealed the harshness of Fr. Founsel and the gloom of the settlement. Because of the letters, many priests wanted to come to Molokai.

The bishop relented. He allowed four priests at the settlement. An arm in a sling, a foot in bandages and his leg dragging, Fr. Damien knew death was near. He was bedridden on Mar. 23, and on Mar. 30, 1889 he made a general confession and renewed his vows. April 1, he received Holy Viaticum and on April 2, he received Extreme Unction. During the following days, Fr. Conrady would walk from the Church to the house to give him Communion while the altar servers would ring the bells in a procession with lit candles. Fr. Damien told those around him that there were two figures at his bed, one at the head and the other at the foot. It is unknown who these figures were, but perhaps they could have been Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin.

At the age of forty-nine, on April 15, he died at 8:00am, four days short of Good Friday. He was buried with two thousand other lepers near St. Philomena’s Church. News of Fr. Damien’s death arrived at Honolulu on the same day and within a month the world knew of it. A monument was built at the settlement in Molokai in 1893. Fr. Damien’s brother, Fr. Pamphile, announced that he would publish his letters. In 1895, the Congregation asked his brother to come to Molokai and work. He arrived there but it was too difficult for him and so he returned to Belgium.

Because the charity towards lepers was primarily Catholic, Protestants such as Dr. Hyde attacked Fr. Damien after his death. He accused Fr. Damien of contracting the disease by sexual relations. Robert Louis Stephens wrote the book, Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde, based on the situation. He condemned Dr. Hyde’s allegations against Fr. Damien. The annexation of Hawaii to the US in 1898 caused the Hawaiians to become American citizens. This resulted in a huge allocation by the US government to build a scientific station in Molokai. It was abandoned two years later because the lepers refused to use it. In 1936, Fr. Damien’s body was taken to Belgium and in 1938 the process of his beatification was opened. During the1940’s, a new drug called DDS became successful in curbing the disease.It was no longer a social disease because segregation was no longer required.In 1959 the territory of Hawaii became a state and each state was allowed to place two statues of their dead in the capital building of Washington DC. A statue of Fr. Damien was erected. Father Damien was declared Blessed on June 4th, 1995.

Related Resources

The Spirit of Father Damien, The Leper Priest-A Saint for Our Times The Spirit of Father Damien, The Leper Priest-A Saint for Our Times

Father Damien, famous for his missionary work with exiled lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, is finally Saint Damien. His sanctity took 120 years to become officially recognized, but between his death in 1889 and his canonization in 2009, amid creeping secularization and suspicion of the missionary spirit he so much embodied, Fr. Damien De Veuster never faded from the world’s memory. What kept him there? What keeps him there now? To find an answer, Belgian historian and journalist Jan De Volder sifted through Father Damien’s personal correspondence as well as the Vatican archives. With careful and even-handed expertise, De Volder follows Father Damien’s transformation from the stout, somewhat haughty missionary of his youth, bounding from Europe to Hawaii and straight into seemingly tireless priestly work, to the humble and loving shepherd of souls who eventually succumbed to the same disease that ravaged his flock. De Volder finds that, as spiritual father, caretaker, teacher, and advocate, Father Damien accomplished many heroic feats for these poor outcasts. Yet the greatest gift he gave them was their transformation from a disordered, lawless throng exiled in desperate anarchy into a living community built on Jesus Christ, a community in which they learned to care for one another. Every generation seems to have its own image of this world-famous priest. Already during his life on Molokai and at his death in 1889, many considered him a holy man. Even today, in the highly secularized Western world, he is widely admired. In 2005 his native Belgium honored him with the title “the greatest Belgian” in polling conducted by their public broadcasting service. Statues honor his memory in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and at the entrance to the Hawaiian State Capitol in Honolulu. In 1995, in the presence of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John Paul II beatified him in Brussels, Belgium; and in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI canonized him in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Today Father Damien is the unofficial patron of outcasts and those afflicted with HIV/AIDS. De Volder contends that the common thread running through the saint’s life, the spirit of Father Damien that so speaks to the world, is at once uniquely Christian, fully human, and as important today as ever before.



  1. Marie  •  Sep 8, 2010 @12:52 pm

    Inspiring, he gave his life to help others.

  2. eastern bmx  •  Sep 9, 2010 @1:04 am

    WOW!!! Nice Post!Kind Regards

  3. Glenda Canfield  •  Sep 19, 2010 @3:52 am

    It is interesting that Father Damien introduced Eucharistic Adoration to the leper colony, with astounding results of conversion. I will include this story next week when I lead an Edge/ Middle School youth group lesson on Adoration. — Also, I did not know that his mother died upon hearing of his contracting leprosy. The Blessed Mother must have a special love for the mothers of saints! — Loneliness seems to be a common experience of the saints (i.e, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. John of the Cross, etc.)

  4. sam and carly  •  Sep 20, 2010 @5:25 pm

    it cool man

  5. sayind  •  Sep 20, 2010 @5:37 pm

    cool for real tell me more it is very interesting have a good day you people

  6. icarly cast  •  Sep 20, 2010 @5:38 pm

    read the book

  7. barb finnegan  •  Jun 25, 2011 @3:06 pm

    Another good book on [now] Saint Damian is ‘Damien the Leper’, written in the late 1940s-early 1950s by John Farrow, the film director and father of the actress Mia Farrow. He heard about Father Damien while marooned in the South Pacific after his sailboat was wrecked. His host in whose house he stayed in told him that the bed he slept in had once been occupied by a leper. I think the leper was a relative of the host’s, and he kept telling Mr. Farrow about someone named ‘Kamiano’ who was a legend among South Seas islanders for his kindness to lepers. Mr. Farrow was intrigued by this ‘Kamiano’ and started doing research when he came back to America. He found out that ‘Kamiano’ was the Hawaiian word for ‘Damien’, and his searches took him all the way to Belgium, France, and Hawaii-and that’s how he wrote the book.

    Doubleday Image Books originally published the book, and I think it was reissued by Ignatius Press. I know that his daughter Mia Farrow wrote an introduction to the new edition.

Leave a Reply

Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  • About This Site

    This Web site was founded in 2002 as a tribute to the Mother of Jesus. It was created with love to document the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints of the Catholic Church who hail from the United States.

    All For Mary's founder, Ron Venditti, passed away in 2007, but his legacy continues here in these pages.
    This site is dedicated to Ron.
    Ron Venditti