Tag Archives: Damien of Molokai

The love of St. Damien


“Damien simply loved them
as souls redeemed by Christ
and was prepared to do anything for them.”
Butler’s Lives of the Saints: New Concise Edition

On May 10, 1873, Father Damien de Veuster landed on the island of Molokai in Hawaii. He was scheduled to be there three months every year, being relieved by three other priests. However, after a short time there, he asked the bishop to allow him to do his ministry there full-time.

Molokai was the place where lepers, those with Hansens disease, were sent to die. Father Damien came upon a horridsituation. The lepers were abandoned. There was a hospital but the care was minimal. There was no work. At times, lepers were cast off the ships and had to find their way onto the beach through the surf.

Father Damien found a situation where drinking and promiscuous sex were rampant, where the dead were not always buried, and where life was not valued.

He founded a funeral society to bury the dead; he managed to have the government expand the health care; he began projects.

But what was essential is that he “simply loved them.”

That was probably not easy. People like Dorothy Day who work directly with the poor know that. The poor are not always saints – nor are they always sinners. They are not always easy to live with or work with.

There are the people always looking for a handout. There are the people who call incessantly over a project. There are the people who do not follow up on commitments. There are the people who are dictators in their communities. There are those who drink too much.

The response has to be love.

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” wrote Dostoevsky.

But love is our salvation. A God who is Love came onto our Molokais, finding us in horrid situations. And He loved us.

And He calls us to love.


Burying the dead

On May 10, 1873, Father Damien de Veuster, a Belgian missionary, landed on the Hawaiian island of Molokai and began his ministry with those suffering from Hansen’s disease – commonly called leprosy.

He found a place where hygiene was almost non-existent, where dogs ate the dead, and where the people lived in situations that could hardly be called human. He also found a situation where it was difficult for people to be good.

He founded a cemetery and even buried the dead himself. He treated the people not as outcasts but as “we lepers.” He finally contracted the disease, but not before winning the hearts of the people and the adulation of many from afar.

St. Damien de Veuster is an example of the many who have done something we often think as extraordinary – but was it?

Burying the dead is, after all, one of the traditional works of mercy.

But only yesterday did the dead perpetrator of the attack on the Boston Marathon find someone willing to provide a place of burial.

Burying the dead became controversial. And, sadly, it appears that few people of faith dare to do what is a simple act of human mercy.

Burying the dead can be dangerous. Studying the role of the church in Suchitoto, El Salvador, I noted that one role that the priest and the US sisters working with him in the late 1980s and early 1990s performed was burying the dead, especially the dead guerrillas. Family members were reluctant to show up because of the possibility of being captured by the Salvadoran army.

However, I also admire the simple courage of Niña Flor, an elderly Suchitoto woman involved in the church who was probably fairly conservative politically. In the early 1980s she would go out and bury the dead – no matter who they were. It was dangerous and she risked being imprisoned by the military. But her sense of being a Christian moved her.

St. Damien of Molokai buried the dead, Niña Flor risked her life to bury the dead. Someone gave a burial plot to Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

It’s about being really human – and being really followers of Christ.

As the Worcester police said, “… a courageous and compassionate individual came forward to provide the assistance needed to properly bury the deceased.”

That individual, in my mind, is following in the footsteps of people like St. Damien of Molokai.

What about us?