At age 18, Jozef De Veuster declared his intention to enter the priesthood. Five years later, in the midst of his seminary studies, Jozef, who had taken the name Damien, saw the answer to a long-time prayer: he had the opportunity to enter the mission field. The following year, 1864, Damien completed the long trip from his homeland of Belgium to Hawaii.
After years of working on the island of Oahu, Damien was one of four priests who volunteered to serve on the island on Molokai, on the Kalaupapa peninsula, where for several years Hawaiians afflicted with Hansen's disease, leprosy, were forcibly relocated to live in quarantine, isolated from the general population of the islands. From the 1860s to the 1960s, thousands were torn from their families and homes to live here, without much assistance from the government, without law enforcement or schools, many without housing. Damien soon requested a permanent assignment in Molokai.
More remarkable than all of this, however, was Father Damien's embrace of those whom society had feared and rejected. His home was always open to whomever would visit. Individuals who were deemed both physically and morally unclean--'afflicted with this disease because of their sins'--he treated as brothers and sisters, sharing meals together, enjoying one another's company. Damien saw these lepers as human beings, something many had failed to recognize. He erected no barriers between himself and them, allowed for no distinctions or division.
After of twelve years of such openness and friendship, Damien discovered what he had long suspected, that he himself had contracted leprosy. In the five years left to him, the priest saw many of his building projects in the villages of Kalaupapa completed and was comforted in the knowledge that several individuals who had joined his work would carry it on in his stead. In 1889, at the age of 49, Father Damien died of leprosy. Before his death, Damien requested that his remains be interred at the parish church in his new homeland of Molokai.
Damien's 25 years of service in Hawaii has, in the century since, inspired thousands around the globe to seek out and serve outcasts who suffered from stigmatized diseases. In 2009, Damien himself would be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church: Saint Damien of Molokai.
Earlier profiles in the "God is actually quite Great" series:
Churches that raided slave ships