Blessed Damien de Veuster (January 3, 1840 – April 15, 1889), born Jozef de Veuster and also known as Blessed Damien of Molokai (in Dutch, Damiaan), was a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium and member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a missionary religious order. It was announced on July 3, 2008, that Damien is to be canonized by the Catholic Church in 2009 by authority of Pope Benedict XVI.
Father Damien is known for his ministering of people with what was then widely known as leprosy, who had been placed under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine, on the island of Molokai in the Kingdom of Hawaii. He eventually contracted the disease himself, and is widely considered a "martyr of charity". In the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, as well as other denominations of Christianity, Damien is considered the spiritual patron for Hansen's Disease, HIV and AIDS patients as well as outcasts. As the patron saint of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu and of Hawaii, Father Damien Day is celebrated statewide on April 15. Upon his beatification by Pope John Paul II in Rome on June 4, 1995, Blessed Damien was granted a memorial feast day, which is celebrated on May 10.
Several memorials have been made to Damien worldwide. The Father Damien Statue honors the priest in bronze at the United States Capitol while a full size replica stands in front of the Hawaii State Capitol. In 2005, Damien was honored with the title of De Grootste Belg, chosen as The Greatest Belgian throughout Belgian history in polling conducted by the Flemish public broadcasting service, VRT.
In both ecumenical religious and non-sectarian communities, Damien is being adopted as the symbol of how society should treat HIV/AIDS patients in defiance of the misconceptions of the disease, much like leprosy treatment was an outgrowth of misconceptions. Several Damien Centers have been established worldwide to serve people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
On May 10, 1873, Father Damien arrived at the secluded settlement at Kalaupapa. Bishop Maigret presented Damien to the colonists as "one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you." The settlement was bordered by a steep mountain ridge. There were 816 lepers living at Kalaupapa. Damien's first course of action was to build a church and establish the Parish of Saint Philomena.
Father Damien's role was not limited to being a priest. He is said to have dressed ulcers, built homes and beds, built coffins and dug graves.
It has been stated that the Kingdom of Hawaii didn't plan the settlement to be in disarray but did not provide sufficient resources and medical help. Damien's arrival is seen by some as a turning point for the community. Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks became painted houses, working farms were organized and schools were erected.
His symbols are a tree and a dove.
As indicated in his diaries, in December 1884 Damien went about his evening ritual of soaking his feet in boiling water. He could not feel the heat; he had contracted leprosy. Despite this discovery, residents say that Damien worked vigorously to build as many homes as he could and planned for the continuation of the programs he created after he was gone.
Masanao Goto, Japanese Leprologist, came to Honololu in 1885 and treated Father Damien. It was his theory that leprosy was caused by a diminution of the blood, and his treatment consisted of nourishing food, moderate exercise, frequent friction to the benumbed parts, special ointments and medical baths. The treatments did, indeed, relieve some of the symptoms and were very popular with the Hawaiien patients. Father Damien, too, had faith in the treatments and stated, "I have not the slightest confidence in our American and European doctors to stay my leprosy, I wish to be treated by Dr. Masanao Goto.His last trip to Honolulu on July 10, 1886, was made to receive treatment from Dr. Goto.
With the flurry of activity, four strangers came to Kalaupapa in search of Damien to help the ailing missionary. Louis Lambert Conrardy was a Belgian priest. Mother Marianne Cope was Superior of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse. Joseph Dutton was an American Civil War soldier who left behind a marriage broken because of alcoholism. James Sinnett was a nurse from Chicago. Conrardy took up pastoral duties while Cope organized a working hospital. Dutton attended to the construction and maintenance of the community's buildings. Sinnett nursed Damien in the last phases of the disease, closing his eyes upon Father Damien's death at the age of 49 from leprosy. He was originally buried on Molokai, but in 1936, the Belgian government asked for the return of his body, which was brought back to Belgium on the ship Mercator and which is now buried in Leuven, a city close to the village where he was born.
King David Kalakaua bestowed on Damien the honor Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua. When Princess Lydia Liliuokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she was reported as having been too distraught and heartbroken to read her speech. The princess shared her experience with the world and publicly acclaimed Damien's efforts. Consequently, Damien's name was spread across the United States and Europe. American Protestants raised large sums of money for the missionary. The Church of England sent food, medicine, clothing and supplies. It is believed that Damien never wore the medal given to him.
Two miracles attributed to Father Damien (posthumously) have been claimed: On June 13, 1992, Pope John Paul II approved the cure of a nun in France in 1895 as a miracle attributed to Venerable Damien’s intercession. In that case, Sister Simplicia Hue begun a novena to Father Damien as she lay dying of a lingering intestinal illness. It is stated that pain and symptoms of the illness disappeared overnight. In the second case, a Hawaiian woman who suffered from cancer found, after she prayed at the grave of Father Damien on Molokai, that it had completely disappeared. However, it was surprisingly disclosed in July 2008 that "In 1997, (the Hawaiian woman) was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a cancer that arises in fat cells. She underwent surgery a year later. A tumor the size of a fist was removed from the side of her left thigh and buttock." . This contasted with a widely quoted 2003 story that "She had absolutely no treatment, not even a diet".
On June 4, 1995, Pope John Paul II beatified Father Damien and gave him his official spiritual title of Blessed. On December 20, 1999, Jorge Medina Estévez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, confirmed the November 1999 decision of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to place Blessed Damien on the liturgical calendar with the rank of optional memorial. His feast Day is celebrated on May 10. In Hawaii, it is celebrated on the day of his death, April 15.
In April of 2008, The Holy See ruled that Father Damien was indeed responsible for two miracles attributed to him. On June 2, 2008, The Congregation of the Causes of Saints at the Vatican voted to recommend raising Father Damien of Molokai to sainthood. The decree that officially notes and verifies the miracle needed for canonization was promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI and Jose Cardinal Saraiva Martins on Thursday, July 3, 2008, with the ceremony taking place in Rome, with celebrations in Belgium and Hawaii.
In Blessed Damien's role as the unofficial patron of those with HIV and AIDS, the world's only Roman Catholic memorial chapel to those who have died of this disease, at the Église Saint-Pierre-Apôtre in Montreal, Quebec is consecrated to him.
In answer to your inquiries about Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, head-strong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.
Having read the letter, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, also a Presbyterian, drafted an equally famous treatise dated February 25, 1890 as a rebuttal in defense of Damien. Prior to writing his treatise, Stevenson stayed in Molokai for eight days and seven nights, during which he kept a diary. In addition to calling Reverend Hyde a "crank," Stevenson answered his criticisms point by point.
In Molokai, Stevenson had sought testimony from critical Protestant residents about Damien, which he recorded in his diary. The treatise included some extracts, such as:
'He seems to have been a man of the peasant class, certainly of the peasant type: shrewd, ignorant and bigoted, yet with an open mind, and capable of receiving and digesting a reproof if it were bluntly administered; superbly generous in the least thing as well as in the greatest, and as ready to give his last shirt (although not without human grumbling) as he had been to sacrifice his life; essentially indiscreet and officious, which made him a troublesome colleague; domineering in all his ways, which made him incurably unpopular with the Kanakas, but yet destitute of real authority, so that his boys laughed at him and he must carry out his wishes by the means of bribes.'
...I have set down these private passages, as you perceive, without correction; thanks to you, the public has them in their bluntness. They are almost a list of the man's faults, for it is rather these that I was seeking: with his virtues, with the heroic profile of his life, I and the world were already sufficiently acquainted. I was besides a little suspicious of Catholic testimony; in no ill sense, but merely because Damien's admirers and disciples were the least likely to be critical. I know you will be more suspicious still; and the facts set down above were one and all collected from the lips of Protestants who had opposed the father in his life. Yet I am strangely deceived, or they build up the image of a man, with all his weakness, essentially heroic, and alive with rugged honesty, generosity, and mirth.
In the process of examining Damien's fitness for beatification and canonization, the Roman Curia reviewed documentation of published and unpublished criticisms against the missionary's life and work. Diaries and interviews were considered. In the end it was decided that Damien met the standards for beatification and canonization.
Mahatma Gandhi offered his own defense of Father Damien's life and work. Gandhi claimed Damien to have been an inspiration for his social campaigns in India that led to the freedom of his people and secured aid for those that needed it. Gandhi was quoted in M.S. Mehendale’s 1971 account called "Gandhi Looks at Leprosy" as saying, "The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Moloka'i. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism."
Also documented was when Father Damien had "Protestant minister and patient J. K. Kahuila put in irons and removed to the Oahu prison" for "rebellious" language. Shortly after that "Damien was informed that the duties of superintendent were to be assumed by (another person). After his death, the Catholic church created, perpetuated and published exaggerated myths about Father Damien having superhuman strength, to "recruit young clergymen" and "raise money". These Catholic biographies provided the basic elements that would be elaborated into the "Damien myth", including his "pious childhood", the "childlike and immoral state of lawless lepers", and the assertion that he was "strong enough to carry a wood beam that would take four Hawaiians to lift" (from Damien's letters to his family, which "exaggerated adversities at the settlement and his own importance there." However, Ambrose Huthison, a patient who knew Damien, insisted that the priest was of medium height and "an ordinary plain man in every sense".
The Roman Catholic Church has attributed two miracles to Father Damien one of which was curing cancer. However skeptics of miracle cures have noted that it is now known that the statistical rate of spontaneous regression or remission is measurable at between one in every 60,000 to one in every 140,000 cases of cancer which can explain what was thought to be a miracle. .
The case report for the claimed miracle cure in Hawaii was reviewed by the president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Dr. Richard Schilsky, a University of Chicago cancer specialist. He found that it's "highly likely" that the lung had already been seeded with liposarcoma cells when her original tumor was found. Schilsky said it isn't clear that all three lung growths were cancer, since only one was biopsied, and pointed out that there are several reasons people get small inflammatory nodules in the lungs that might resolve spontaneously. Dr. Richard Schilsky noted that "The point here is that the primary tumor was treated," and that could have helped her immune system control any remaining cancer in her body.
After the beatification of Blessed Damien, Belgian film producer Tharsi Vanhuysse was inspired to lead a project honoring the famous priest. Vanhuysse teamed with film producer Grietje Lammertyn of ERA Films and searched for screenwriter, director and lesser known actors. Australian David Wenham was chosen to play the lead. Another Australian, Paul Cox, was selected to direct the project. Previously, he had completed an independent movie about the artist Vincent van Gogh. American John Briley wrote the screenplay. Briley was an Academy Award winner for writing the screenplay for "Gandhi." He also worked on the movie, "Cry Freedom." Other actors in the movie entitled "Molokai: The Story of Father Damien" include Derek Jacobi, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Neill, Tom Wilkinson and Peter O'Toole. The movie was released on March 17, 2000.