Missionary priest, born at Tremeloo,
Belgium, 3 January 1840; died at Molokai, Hawaii, 15 April 1889.
His father, a small farmer, sent him to a college at Braine-le-Comte, to prepare
for a commercial profession; but as a result of a mission given by the
Redemptorists in 1858, Joseph decided to become a religious. He entered the
novitiate of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary at Louvain, and
took in religion the name of Damien. He was admitted to the religious
profession, 7 Oct. 1860. Three years later, though still in minor orders, he was
sent to the mission of the Hawaiian Islands, where he arrived, 19 March, 1864.
Ordained priest at Honolulu 24 May of the same year, he was later given charge
of various districts on the island of Hawaii, and, animated with a burning zeal,
his robust constitution allowed him to give full play to the impulses of his
heart. He was not only the missionary of the natives, but also constructed
several chapels with his own hands, both in Hawaii and in Molokai.
On the latter island there had grown up a leper settlement where the Government
kept segregated all persons afflicted with the loathsome disease. The board of
health supplied the unfortunates with food and clothing, but was unable in the
beginning to provide them with either resident physicians or nurses. On 10 May,
1873, Father Damien, at his own request and with the sanction of his bishop,
arrived at the settlement as its resident priest. There were then 600 lepers.
"As long as the lepers can care for themselves", wrote the superintendent of the
board of health to Bishop Maigret, "they are comparatively comfortable, but as
soon as the dreadful disease renders them helpless, it would seem that even
demons themselves would pity their condition and hasten their death." For a long
time, however, Father Damien was the only one to bring them the succour they so
greatly needed. He not only administered the consolations of religion, but also
rendered them such little medical service and bodily comforts as were within his
power. He dressed their ulcers, helped them erect their cottages, and went so
far as to dig their graves and make their coffins. After twelve years of this
heroic service he discovered in himself the first symptoms of the disease. This
was in 1885. He nevertheless continued his charitable ministrations, being
assisted at this period by two other priests and two lay brothers. On 28 March,
1889, Father Damien became helpless and passed away shortly after, closing his
fifteenth year in the service of the lepers.
Certain utterances concerning his morality called forth Robert Louis Stevenson's
well-known philippic against the Rev. Dr. Hyde, wherein the memory of the
Apostle of the Lepers is brilliantly vindicated. In addition a correspondence in
the "Pacific Commercial Advertiser", 20 June, 1905, completely removes from the
character of Father Damien every vestige of suspicion, proving beyond a doubt
that Dr. Hyde's insinuations rested merely on misunderstandings.
Appleton's Biography Edited by
Stanley L. Klos Copyright Virtualology 2001.
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