Updated: Apr 27, 2020
On April 15, 1889, in an isolated island village, a 49-year-old Belgian Priest lay dying. It was the Monday of Holy week. The previous day, Palm Sunday, the priest had been too weak to celebrate the eucharist for his flock. Fortunately, another priest in the village stepped in for the service, and at the conclusion of mass, brought the sacrament to the priest in bed. It would be his last sacrament. That there was another priest to bring him the sacrament was very different from most of his time in that village. For most of the last 16 years, he had been very, very alone in his work.
The dying priest was named Joseph DeVuester. Though hardly famous by modern standards, he is nonetheless better remembered by his religious name: Father Damien of Molokai.
That his name is remembered at all could easily be classified as a fluke. He was never supposed to be in Hawaii. He wasn’t supposed to be a priest. He certainly wasn’t supposed to end up in a squalid leper colony, dying of the dreaded illness we now call Hansen’s disease. He wasn’t supposed to be a hero. But there are times in our world when “supposed to” means very little.
Damien was born into a devout working family in the Belgian village of Tremeloo. Somewhat to his parents’ dismay, he followed his admittedly much more intelligent older brother Pamphile into the Society of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (called “the Picpus Fathers” after the name of the road on which their main house in Paris stood). It was at first questionable whether the order would accept him at all. Considering his aptitudes and education, the community very quickly deemed the priesthood to be out of the question for him. He was to remain a lay brother. Pamphile had a bit more confidence in him, and tutored him in Latin and Greek for theological study. Eventually, he was accepted to study for the priesthood, but he was hardly an academic standout.
His studies were still incomplete, and he remained a lay brother, when Pamphile fell ill, and was unable to leave on a missionary assignment to the then independent kingdom of Hawaii. Damien convinced the reluctant Superior of the order to allow him to go to Hawaii in his brother’s place. He arrived in Hawaii in 1864, and was ordained in Honolulu a few months later. His first charge included much of the “big island” of Hawaii, where he would hike miles daily over rugged lava fields to visit and minister to the various small Catholic communities around the island.
In January of 1865, under pressure from American and European landowners in Hawaii, King Kamehameha V approved an act to contain the spread of leprosy (a disease most likely brought to the islands by those same American and European settlers). Soon, member of Damien’s flock, known or suspected to have the disease, were forcibly taken from their homes and sent to an isolated peninsula on the island of Molokai, bounded on three sides by violent surf and on the fourth by a sheer cliff separating them from the rest of the island. Those sent to the island would be rowed ashore in small boats to fend for themselves in the village called Kalaupapa. The village was entirely peopled by the sick, and a few family members who got permission to be exiled with their loved ones. They would all stay there until they died. Supplies from the other islands would arrive periodically in those same small boats. When the surf was too rough, the boats would not even put out from the supply ships: the supplies, and those being brought to begin their exile, would simply be dumped into the rough sea, and who and what made it to shore was anyone’s guess. The village was without doctors or nurses, without police or any public services, without clergy, and most of all without hope. The sick and dying were expected to build and maintain their own dwellings, plant and harvest their own food, and more and more frequently, bury their own dead. Needless to say, these things went undone more than not.
In around 1873, the Picpus Fathers in Hawaii became aware of the horrific conditions on Molokai, and decided they could not ignore them. They could not accept that those isolated there had no one to care for them, body or soul. No one to remind them, as Damien is credited with saying later, “that God has not forgotten them.” There were church buildings there, Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon, but no clergy or missionary would dare to accept exile with the lost souls of that place. Their bishop explained that he was unwilling to send anyone to such circumstances, unless they volunteered. They agreed on a plan to have a series of priests serve 3 month stretches, presuming that no one could possibly tolerate such conditions for long. Four priests volunteered for the rotation. Damien agreed to go first. He would never rotate out.
During his 16 years at the settlement, Damien acted not only as priest to the community, but as a nurse, a builder, an undertaker, and a keeper of the peace. For nearly all of that time, he served alone. At first, he was allowed to make periodic trips to Honolulu to seek supplies and (most importantly to him) receive the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) from another priest. While he could and did celebrate the eucharist daily at Kalaupapa, his isolation separated him from the ability to confess to another priest. His letters tell us he felt this deprivation deeply, and one can hardly be surprised that, in his circumstances, he would feel the need to bare his soul often. Before long, government officials forbade Damien’s trips out of the settlement. How could they be assured that he was not carrying the contagion with him? He was informed that if he left the settlement again, he would not be permitted to return. So he did not. Likewise, other priests were not permitted to visit and return. On one occasion, his bishop came aboard the supply ship, but the Captain refused to take him to shore. Damien and several others rowed out to the ship, but were not permitted to board. In desperation, the bishop suggested Damien make his confession from the rowboat, but in French, as the ship’s crew was English-speaking. He shouted his sins over the waves, and heard a shouted absolution back from the deck of the ship.
From the day he arrived at Molokai, Damien spoke to his people with the words “we lepers.” He identified with them, and willingly offered all he had for their good. It is said that one day he sat down to soak his tired feet, as he often did. He placed one foot in the water, and after a moment the other. As soon as his second foot touched the water, he drew back in pain. He had forgotten to add cold water to the boiling. The first foot he had placed in it was already scalded and blistering. But he felt nothing. Leprosy attacks the nerves, and causes inability to feel pain. Suddenly he knew, he was now truly one of them.
He died among his lepers on that Monday in Holy Week, 1898. I write these words on his feast day on the Episcopal calendar, the anniversary of his death. He was buried outside the little church in the settlement, under a tree where he had sheltered in his first days on the island. The marker there bears the words of John 13:15 – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Of course, it is through my great admiration of this man’s life that I chose to take his name as my name in religion: Damien for his religious name, Joseph for his baptismal name after the earthly father of our Lord. Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about Damien these days. Our situation is not entirely unlike his. We largely find ourselves, worldwide, huddling in quarantine-like conditions. In some places, the conditions are grim indeed. For much of the world, our cooperation is voluntary, unlike at Molokai in the late 19th century. Frankly, for some of us, conditions aren’t much more than inconvenient. But we are all frightened, to some degree isolated, and alone. Many are separated from the sacraments, and from the regular corporate worship of God we rely on so much. Those few of us who do have regular access to the sacraments long to once again share them with all those we love, and with the worldwide body of Christ. We are all in need of the reminder that God has not forgotten us.
And we all, like Damien, have to choose how we will respond. This is a Damien moment. No, that doesn’t mean we are all called to throw our own safety to the wind and go catch the virus. No, we’re not all called to literally lay down our lives at this moment. This is a different pandemic, a different time, with different knowledge and different needs. But this is nonetheless a Damien moment. Hurting remains hurting. Sickness is still sickness. Isolation is still lonely. Separation from the people, places, and routines we know is as frightening and disorienting for us as for anyone in any pandemic before us. The needs are just as real. Death looms just as large. But the other thing that hasn’t changed is God.
In this Damien moment, let us ask God what we are to do. What is our role? Damien built houses, bandaged sores, celebrated sacraments, dug graves. This crisis is not the same, but people today are likewise finding diverse and creative ways to respond and to help: Staying home to stop the spread. Going to work in essential jobs. Giving money to assist those in need. Sewing masks for protection. Taking groceries to those who can’t go out. Calling and writing to remind others that we have not forgotten them, and neither has God. Maintaining our lives of prayer and worship, sharing out strength and faith with others. Offering the virtual and spiritual presence of the sacrament where we cannot offer it in person. It all matters. This is our moment.
I admire the heroism of Damien. Many of us, I think, have a weakness for the “Lone Ranger” hero that saves the world all on his own. But that hero doesn’t really exist. Damien had the support (though from a distance) of his Brothers and superiors. He had relationships with those he served, and by the end of his life several other priests and laymen had joined him at the settlement. Franciscan nuns, under the leadership of Mother Maryann Cope, came as nurses and continued his work. People all around Europe and America read news accounts of this amazing priest and sent astonishing amounts of money and supplies to support his work. Princess Leluiokalani, heir to the Hawaiian throne, visited the settlement, and threw her substantial influence behind Damien’s work. Artist Edward Clifford visited and painted portraits of Damien and life at the settlement, helping to capture the world’s imagination. Famous writers of the day, including Charles Warren Stoddard, and no less a figure than Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote about Damien and his work. Together, they raised public awareness to such a degree that serious research into the disease was undertaken. Physicians worked with Damien and others on Molokai testing early treatment regimens. Much was learned about the transmission of the disease and how to prevent it (notably, none of those who took Damien’s place ever contracted it). With accurate information, the stigma and discrimination surrounding the disease were lessened. And eventually, an effective cure was found. Damien was no Lone Ranger. His work alone could never have accomplished all this.
And so it is with us. Frankly, my prayer is that those of you reading this will not go literally the way of Damien. I’d rather you not get sick. I surely don’t want you to die. But we all have a part to play in this Damien moment. And whatever the specifics of our service and our sacrifice, this fact also is the same: “Greater love has no one than this…”