Saint Joseph Damien de Veuster was born on Jan. 3, 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium. He spent the majority of his youth helping his parents taking care of their family farm. At the age of 19, he became a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, which was when he took the name Damien.
St. Damien was assigned to the Hawaiian islands after his brother, who was a priest originally assigned to Hawaii, fell ill and was unable to make the trip. After two months since his arrival to Hawaii, St. Damien completed his studies and was ordained a priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary on May 21, 1864 in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace.
During the opening months of St. Damien’s stay in Hawaii, the Hawaiian population was struggling against Hansen’s disease, or leprosy as it was called during those times. Those who were infected with this illness were often moved to a leper colony, an isolated area where infected individuals were kept to avoid further infection. Hawaii’s leper colony was in Molokai, and St. Damien requested to serve in Kalawao, an area in the district where the most desperate leprosy patients were housed.
St. Damien was a blessing to Molokai. There, he dedicated his time to treating patients physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Stories of him cleaning wounds, bathing bodies, tidying up rooms, playing music, and teaching others how to farm were plentiful. For those who were severely ill, St. Damien provided sacraments and anointings to help lift the spirits of the individual and the community. St. Damien also successfully appealed to the Hawaiian government for money, which was used to build schools, homes, orphanages, and a church.
St. Damien grew so attached to the community that he requested to remain permanently in the colony. The infected few who were casted aside were then given a continuous source of hope due to the selflessness of St. Damien. Unfortunately, he, too, was vulnerable to leprosy and died from the disease in April 15, 1889 at Kalawao, Molakai.
St. Damien’s efforts to bring joy and relief to people regardless of who they were has led to him being one of the most celebrated figures in Hawaiian history. Multiple statues stand in his honor in areas throughout Hawaii and the mainland. The two most prominent memorials are the Saint Damien of Molokai Statue at the state capitol and the Father Damien Statue at Washington D.C., where each state is allowed to have two people who were significant in the history of the state honored. The other statue to represent Hawaii is that of King Kamehameha the Great.
On Oct. 11, 2009, St. Damien was canonized. Today the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace continues to honor his legacy through the continuation of his ideals and celebration of his Feast Day, which is on May 10.
A relic – a part of bone from St. Damien’s foot – is enshrined in the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Honolulu.