Friday, February 21, 2014

He built their coffins and dug their graves.

Father Damien was born Josef de Veuster in 1840 in Belgium.   In 1864, Damien arrived in Honolulu as a missionary and was ordained to the priesthood.  Fr. Damien became aware of thousands dying from leprosy. Hawaiian  As their limbs wasted away they were often shunned and left untreated by their families and society at large. The only solution the government could find to stop the spread of the leprosy epidemic was to forcibly remove everyone who contracted the disease and then confine them to a remote peninsula where they could not escape. King Kamehameha segregated the lepers by creating a colony, moving them to an isolated settlement on the island of Molokai. They were not only cut off from any contact with their families and friends, but were left defenseless in a situation where lawlessness reigned and unrestrained abuses became rampant. Many sought escape from their  misery and hopelessness through getting high on opium and alcohol. Those too weak to care for themselves, and the dying, were left alone to fend for themselves.

Damien was concerned about the care of their souls if they were to be sent to this desolate area.  He believed that the lepers should at least have a priest to tend to their spiritual needs so he volunteered knowing it was a definite death sentence, so he asked his bishop to be sent to Molokai.

Damien arrived at the isolated settlement and his Bishop presented Damien to the 600 lepers 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." Damien was sent to a morally deprived, lawless colony of death where people fought each other to survive. His first project was to build a church so the people might learn the faith and have a place to worship.

Damien described the conditions when he arrived: 
“Many…make their small shelters, covering them with sugar cane and ki leaves, or at best with pili grass…Under such primitive roofs these wretches, banished from society, live together, without any distinction being made regarding age or gender, and without anyone being classified according to whether their illness is advance or in its early stages, and all of them, more or less, unknown to each other. They pass all their time playing cards, drinking some kind of rice beer and giving themselves over to various excesses…In this place there is no law!” 
“At that time, the development of the illness was horrible and the number of deaths quite considerable. The miserable condition of the lepers was so terrible that the colony well deserved the name given to it: ‘a living cemetery’” (letter dated November 25, 1873).

The King didn't plan the settlement to be in chaos but he neglected to provide desperately needed resources, which contributed to the confusion and disorganization in the colony.  Damien changed an impossible situation into a colony of life by teaching, painting grass shacks into painted houses, organizing farms and constructing buildings, chapels and roads. He restored faith in his battered and neglected flock. He showed them that despite what the outside world told them, they were precious in the eyes of God. He taught them to believe in God and showed them that by his genuine acts of charity that what there was purpose in their lives. He restored personal pride and dignity among so many who had given up hope. He organized a band, horse riding and choir.

Damien’s superiors had given him strict advice: “Do not touch them. Do not allow them to touch you. Do not eat with them.” At the time it was seen as the right hygienic thing to do, but Father Damian knew that would be impossible. How could he not bless the dying, embrace the sick, bandage the wounded, and console the grieving? After all, that is what Jesus did. Jesus was physically present to those in need. He came to their homes, sat and ate with them, listened to their needs and concerns, and prayed with them as well. He blessed, touched, embraced, healed, and consoled those who were troubled in mind, body, and soul. Even lepers approached Jesus with confident trust that he would receive them and show them mercy. 

“As for me, I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all for Christ. Because of this, when I preach I normally say, ‘We lepers’…When I go into a hut, I always begin by offering to hear their confession. Those who refuse this spiritual help are not deprived of corporal assistance, which is given to all without distinction. Consequently, everyone, with the exception of a few obstinate heretics, look on me as a father” (letter dated November 25, 1873).

Damien made it a habit to personally visit ever leper and to inquire of their needs. He not only made them his friends, he ate with them from the same pot. He even shared his own pipe with them. He nursed the sick, cleansed and bandaged their wounds, and prayed with them as well. He incessantly wrote letters demanding that the best medicines and supplies be sent right away for the care of his lepers.   

Damien worked providing comfort for the people of Kalaupapa for sixteen years. He was not just their priest, but a builder of homes and their doctor, too. He dressed their ulcers, and tended the sick and dying at their bedsides, bringing them meager portions of taro, fish and water and tried to cheer the despairing with sweets. He built their coffins and dug their graves. He liked praying at the cemetary, “My greatest pleasure is to go there [the cemetery] to say my beads, and meditate on that unending happiness which so many of them are already enjoying.” Damien grew to love his parishioners as his own children, caring for lepers of all ages, especially for the children segregated in the colony for whom he created an orphanage.

"Without the constant presence of our Divine Master upon the altar in my poor chapels, I never could have persevered casting my lot with the afflicted of Molokai; the foreseen consequence of which begins now to appear on my skin and is felt throughout the body."

In 1885, he announced, "I am one of you;" he was a leper yet he continued to build hospitals, clinics, and churches, and some six hundred coffins. 

In his last letter to his brother, he confided:
“Dear brother, I continue happy and content and even though I am very sick, I only want to fulfill the will of the Good God….I am still able, though not without some difficulty, to stand every day at the altar where I never forget any of you: Please, in return, pray and get prayers for me as I am gently drawn towards my grave. May God strengthen me and give me the grace of perseverance and a good death” (letter dated February 12, 1889).
On March 28, 1889 Damien became bedridden. Even though he knew that his death was imminent, he did not stop taking thought for his lepers.

On Monday, April 15, 1889, the first day of Holy Week, Damien knew his hour had come.  He said, “The Lord is calling me to celebrate Easter with him.” He died in the arms of his two missionary companions, Father Conrardy and Brother Sinnett. Sinnett wrote, “I have never seen a happier death. He constantly was one with God through his prayer and suffering.” 

Father Joseph Damien de Veuster was beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 4, 1995, and the state of Hawaii has honored him with a statue which stands in Statuary Hall in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol building. On October 11, 2009 he was declared a canonized saint by Pope Benedict XVI.

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