Joseph de Veuster "Holy Man"
Father Damien born Joseph de Veuster in Belgium is best known for his compassionate ministry in the latter part of the nineteenth century for the victims of leprosy or Hansen’s Disease who were quarantined on the island of Molokai. His extraordinary actions reached far beyond the island of Molokai. Indeed, the exemplary life of this humble priest remains a shining example for Christians around the globe.
As a young boy, Joseph was greatly influenced by his mother, Anne-Catherine, whose pride and joy was a ornate book describing the lives of the saints. The book itself was impressive, measuring two feet by eighteen inches and printed in gothic text . Apparently this early training bore fruit as his three older siblings chose to serve the Lord . Joseph wished to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Pamphile who was a fine scholar. However, as devoted as Joseph was to the religious life, intellectually, he was not considered suitable for the priesthood and had to undergo tutoring by Pamphile in order to be accepted into training . Physically strong and full of religious fervor, Joseph more than made up for whatever intellectual failings he may have had and would succeed beyond anyone’s imagination in leaving his mark behind.
His eagerness to serve was rewarded when Pamphile, who was called to serve by the Sacred Heart Missions in the Hawaiian Islands became ill. Father Damien quickly volunteered to take his place .
It is difficult to imagine the culture shock that must have confronted the young priest from Europe who had immersed himself completely in the religious life and had very little experience or knowledge of the outside world. We get a small glimpse into that world when Daws describes Father Damien’s shock at what he considered sexual promiscuity amongst the native Hawaiians. In a letter home Father Damien writes, “Corruption is so precocious among the young kanaka! The children have scarcely learned how to talk before they know more than a young theologian still has to find out”.
The disease of leprosy, unknown in the Hawaiian Islands until introduced by the white man had reached epidemic proportions in the nineteenth century. In an effort to control this horrendous disease, those afflicted with leprosy were rounded up and shipped to Kalawao on the island of Molokai. After serving eight years on the big island of Hawaii, Father Damien volunteered to minister to their needs and in 1873, found himself bound for Molokai along with fifty lepers going into quarantine.