The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Father Damien De Veuster

Saint Joseph de VeusterWe can here commemorate still another emulator of Saint Peter Claver, Father Damien De Veuster, the famous apostle of the lepers of Molokai, toward whose beatification steps have been taken, to the great joy of all his admirers. In Father Damien we, have the example of an extraordinary heroism such as is known only in the Catholic Church, and of so sublime a character that even the most degenerate men must admire it. The life of such a hero, who avowed that he drew his strength from religion alone, is a convincing apology for the Catholic Church.

Even the story of Damien’s youth shows the fervent love and zeal for the Faith that was hidden in his soul. His parents’ home was in Tremeloo, a town near Mechlin in Belgium. The De Veuster family was of modest means. Their most precious possession was a solid and practical faith, and it was their chief care to implant it deeply in the hearts of their children, who fully corresponded with their endeavors. Our Damien, who was born on 3 January 1840, showed himself especially responsive by his great spirit of prayer, his delight in the service of God, and his voluntary practice of penance. He was, moreover, a consistently lively and cheerful boy who loved a boy’s games and bodily exercise. One soon became aware of Damien’s wide awake spirit. But after his elder brother Pamphile went away to study he had to work at home in the field. Later on his parents sent him to take a course in an industrial school. Here he learned French. “Some Walloons,” he writes in one of his first letters, “who ridiculed me for this, I sent home with a ruler.”

Damien was now eighteen years old, sound to the core in mind and body. His dexterity and his strong, muscular body made him fit for the heaviest labors, and because of the purity of his life and his upright, kindly piety he was the joy and pride of his parents. At this time he had the happiness of attending a mission. The fruit Damien gathered from it was a resolution to follow that path which would most surely lead him to salvation, and a consoling voice from within told him that for him it would be the religious state. It would be a hard sacrifice for his parents, two of whose daughters had already taken the veil and whose eldest son Pamphile had joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, commonly called the Picpus Society. Damien, together with his father, paid a visit to Pamphile, who was studying theology in the convent at Louvain, and on this occasion Damien asked and implored his father to let him stay there. The acquiescence of his mother made the parting easy, and the surprised father could not withhold his consent.

Since Damien had made no classical studies, he was told that he could become only a lay-brother. He was quite satisfied and rejoiced that he could now belong altogether to God. During recreations his brother Pamphile, just to make the time pass pleasantly, began to teach him a few Latin words and simple sentences. The result was wonderful. Damien displayed a remarkable memory and a great intelligence. In six months he could read Nepos without preparation. This circumstance induced his superiors to put him at study for the priesthood. After a year and a half of study at Louvain, he made his novitiate at Issy, near Paris, and then took his philosophy and theology at Louvain. “Big Damien/’ as his brethren familiarly called him on account of his robust build, distinguished himself by his pursuit of holiness as well as by his zeal and success in study. He was quite the Father Damien of later days, who shrank from no sacrifice and could practise heroic virtue.

It was by chance, we might say, that Providence led Saint Francis Xavier to the heathen missions. Father Bobadilla had been appointed to go to the Indies, but when the time of departure drew near, he fell ill of a fever, and Francis Xavier stepped into his place and became the great Apostle of India and Japan. In a similar way Father Damien came into his own field of labor. His brother Pamphile, with other missionaries, was appointed to go to the Sandwich Islands in 1863. All was ready for their departure and the tickets were bought when Pamphile was stricken with typhus. Damien immediately wrote to the superior-general of the Congregation humbly asking to go in his brother’s place, “and in this way,” he urged, “the fare for the voyage will not be wasted.” The petition was granted, although Damien had not yet received major orders. His joy at the news was without bounds. The preparations for departure were made rapidly. He took leave of his parents at the pilgrimage of Montaigu and from the port of Bremen he wrote a letter full of the apostolic spirit of faith and at the same time full of tenderness for his parents.

After a voyage of five months the missionaries landed at Honolulu, the capital of the Island Kingdom. During Pentecost week Damien was ordained and was then stationed on the island of Hawaii, here to give the first proofs of his apostolic zeal. In his first letter from Hawaii to his brother, he wrote:

“If God, Our Lord, would send us a holy priest like the Cure of Ars, these strayed sheep would soon be brought back again. Here in this wide region of Puna (a district of Hawaii), I have longed for that holy and pure love of God, that burning zeal for the salvation of souls, which enflamed a Vianney, Cure of Ars. Oh, dearest brother, I beg of you, pray yourself and get others to pray for me and for my poor flock that the Divine Redeemer may enkindle in our hearts that fire which He brought to earth and so earnestly desired to be enkindled. How unwearyingly would I then visit the sick and the old to baptize them in water and the Holy Ghost before they pass to another life. How zealously I would look after the children and ignorant to preserve them from the influence of heretical preachers.”

His desire was fulfilled. Father Damien himself became that zealous apostle, who for nine long years traversed the mountains and valleys of Hawaii to enkindle in the hearts of the Kanakas the fire of divine love.

The frightful plague of leprosy afflicted the inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands. To combat the evil effectively the government in 1865 ordered that all persons infected with leprosy should be transported to the north coast of the little island of Molokai, so that they might be separated from all intercourse with the rest of the people. It seemed a cruel expedient, but it was the only means of rooting out the plague. The life of the poor exiles was the most disconsolate imaginable. Since their numbers continued to increase, the bishop of Honolulu desired to give them a regular pastor so that at least the consolations of religion might lighten their joyless lives. But how could he require any of his priests to accept so heroic a sacrifice. Hardly had Father Damien heard of his bishop’s desire than he voluntarily offered, as he said, “to be buried alive with the unhappy victims of the plague.”

On 10 May 1873, Father Damien landed on the island of dread and death with the fixed resolve of giving himself to his children without reserve and of never after forsaking them. The number of lepers in Molokai was at the time between 800 and 1000, of whom about a half were Catholics. It is well known how hideous the horrible disease makes the human body. The hopeless exile and dull despair had also most disastrous results on their morals. The sight of this twofold misery excited in Damien’s noble soul the heroism of a practical love for God and his neighbor. We learn from himself what was the sacrifice he was obliged to make. On 25 November 1873, he writes to his brother:

“Even the breath of the lepers is so foul-smelling that the air is tainted with it. It comes hard on me to live in this atmosphere. One day while I was celebrating Mass, I thought I would suffocate and I was almost unable to restrain myself from rushing out to take a breath of fresh air. But the thought of my Lord before the grave of Lazarus restored me. My sense of smell is already somewhat dulled, so that it is not quite so hard for me to enter the pestilent dwelling-rooms of the poor sick people. Of course, there comes upon me now and then a feeling of loathing, especially when I must hear the confessions of the sick whose wounds are already full of worms similar to those which consume bodies in the grave. I have often been in great perplexity when I wished to give Extreme Unction because there was not to be found free space between the wounds. There are no physicians here, in fact they could be of no use.”

In these comfortless surroundings, where everything was infected with corporal and spiritual foulness, Father Damien worked the miracle of his charity for his fellow-man with a truly heavenly patience, magnanimity, and self-denial. He performed for these lepers the meanest services. He was their physician, priest, judge, builder, carpenter, grave-digger. He built, for the most part by himself, between three and four hundred houses, and made fifteen to eighteen hundred coffins. For the sick he provided occupation, distraction, and amusement and, above all, the necessary sustenance. He was at his best in the office of consoler, especially in presenting the consideration of the life hereafter. The unhappy beings were not insensible to this self-sacrificing charity. They saw what a sacrifice the Servant of God had made – in what great danger of infection he had placed himself in charity to them. Father Damien therefore soon possessed among them the greatest authority and confidence. There was going on visibly a regeneration in morals, many conversions occurred, the people became reconciled to their fate and looked in the face of death more cheerfully. In a short time the heroic priest had transformed conditions in the leper colony. Though surrounded only by misery, Father Damien felt so happy in his hardships that he would exchange with no one. He attributed his success to the prayers of his brethren and his kindred.

For twelve years he had given the consolations of religion to this desert island with unwearying patience when he began to show symptoms of infection. The plague could destroy his body, but not the heroism and cheerful sacrifice of his great soul. “If I could have health at the price of leaving the island and my work, I would not take it,” he said to his physician. After four years the disease had done its work and the hero and martyr of charity died on 15 April 1889.

The whole world, Catholic and non-Catholic, had long before manifested its admiration of Father Damien. Anglican ministers preached his praises from their pulpits, gathered collections for him, and corresponded with him. One of them asked what was the secret of his strength for such heroic work. Father Damien answered that the continual presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and the daily reception of the Holy Eucharist alone gave him strength to endure. At the news of Father Damien’ s glorious death newspapers of all opinions were filled with enthusiastic praise of him.

“In Birmingham,” says an eyewitness, “the first who saw a picture of Father Damien displayed in a shop window manifested the old, deep-rooted hatred. But this involuntary dislike lasted only a moment. When they learned that it was the hero of Christian charity, the people gathered about the window in such crowds that the police were obliged to disperse them to open the way for traffic.”

The well-known “Daily Telegraph” wrote: “Father Damien is dead. What sorrowful news, and yet it arouses in the heart quite other sentiments than those usual on the death of a distinguished man. So pure and noble was the soul of this man that the death itself does not excite the usual expression of grief, but makes us feel on the contrary something of that true Christian joy which those may well experience who are permitted to be present at the release of a friend of heaven and of mankind. If ever a soul freed from the yoke of earth and hastening from this world will be received with celestial greeting in the Hereafter, surely to this one will the words be said: ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” In this our century of unbelief and self-seeking we have gazed with wonder upon the simple priest who, by his boundless love of his fellow-man, by his complete dedication to a dreadful vocation freely chosen, has won for himself the acknowledgment and gratitude of the whole civilized world.”

In England a committee of men of various beliefs, with the Prince of Wales, afterward Edward VII, at their head, was formed to gather funds for a monument to Father Damien. In Louvain also and at Molokai the memory of the Apostle of the Lepers is to be commemorated by monuments.

But greater than monuments is the memory of the example of his heroic virtue. One of his biographers says with justice: “In him lived again the heroism of the first Christian century in the blood-soaked arena. But he went beyond this. A man would think it a favor to be thrown among wild beasts to be. devoured in comparision with even one long year of life in the poisonous atmosphere of a leper place. And Damien, the champion of Christ, lived many years amongst the lepers of Molokai. Uninterruptedly he remained in the midst of these sick people who would be avoided by another sane man as the pest itself. He had consecrated his service to them, bound their wounds, soothed their pains, awaked their trust in the Divine Master and quickened their hope in eternal life; he was with them at the moment of death, laid their dead in the coffins with his own hand and accompanied them to their last resting place.”

It is certainly not too much to hope that the Church will honor the hero of Molokai on her altars so that his example may encourage imitation in these days which so need the Apostle of Charity, and that all the world may recognize the supernatural strength that dwells in Christianity.*

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916