No feeling in his foot
By Fr. Joseph Briody
Josef De Veuster, best known as the Leper Priest, was born on 3 January 1840 in Belgium. Entering the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Leuven, he took the name Damien.
Though clever, he was considered unsuitable for the priesthood because he lacked education. But he learned Latin from his brother and it was agreed he would be ordained.
During his studies he prayed daily before the image of St Francis Xavier, patron saint of the foreign missions, to be sent on the missions. When his brother Auguste could not travel to Hawaii as a missionary because of illness, Damien went in his place.
On 19 March 1864 he landed in Honolulu. A few weeks later he was ordained a priest and assigned to the mission on the island of Hawaii.
At the time Hawaii had major health problems. The people were contracting diseases introduced by foreign traders and sailors. Thousands died of �flu, syphilis and other diseases new to them, including leprosy, for which there was no known cure.
In 1865 Hawaii issued the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. The lepers were to be quarantined. Between 1866 and 1969 over 8,000 people were sent to Molokai on the Kalaupapa peninsula. They were provided with food but no proper healthcare.
The local bishop realised that a priest was needed to care for the lepers. But such an appointment could be a death sentence and he did not wish to instruct any priest to go there.
was the first to volunteer and on 10 May 1873 he arrived on Molokai. His first act was to build a church and establish the Parish of St Philomena.
He devoted himself to the spiritual needs of his people as well as nursing, building homes, making coffins and digging graves. He wrote to his brother, rewording St Paul: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”
Under Damien�s leadership the life of the lepers improved. At his own request he remained on Molokai, escaping the disease for 12 years.
But one evening as he bathed his feet in boiling water he noticed he had no feeling in his right foot. It was the first sign. At next Sunday�s Mass he began his homily: “We lepers…” The news was flashed around the world.
Fr Damien died of leprosy on 15 April 1889, aged 49. He was buried under the same tree where he first slept on his arrival on Molokai. In January 1936 his body was moved to Leuven at the request of the Belgian government.
In August 1889 a Honolulu Presbyterian minister, Rev C. M. Hyde criticised his work, referring to him as “a coarse, dirty man” whose leprosy could be put down to “carelessness.”
One person who strongly defended Fr Damien was Robert Louis Stevenson, himself a Presbyterian, the author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
In 1890 Stevenson stayed on Molokai for 8 days. He vigorously defended the heroic virtues of Fr Damien. He proved correct. On 11 October 2009 Damien was canonised in Rome along with Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Mahatma Gandhi also defended the priest�s name. Gandhi claimed Fr Damien was an inspiration for his social campaigns in India. Gandhi said:
“The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Fr Damien of Molokai. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.”
Of course the source was Damien�s faith in Christ and the charity flowing from that. At the canonisation Pope Benedict said that the new saints had given themselves “without calculation or personal gain. Their perfection… consists in no longer placing themselves at the centre, but choosing to go against the flow and live according to the Gospel.”