His Mission

Artist Herb Kane
by Herb Kane

Father Damien's path to Kalawao Lepersy Settlement:

Sacred Hearts Bishop Louis Maigret was extremely concerned about the plight of those abandoned at Kalawao (a place where victims of leprosy were exiled, to fend for themselves).  In fact, occasional visits by men of his congregation resulted in the building of the small St. Philomena Chapel.  However, the bishop did not want to force a priest there permanently "in the name of obedience."  However, at the meeting on Maui in 1873, four priests volunteered to take turns visiting the settlement.  Taking the first "shift" was Saint Damien.

Soon after his arrival into Kalawao on May 10, 1873, Saint Damien wrote to his superior in Honolulu saying that it was "absolutely necessary" for a priest to remain there permanently and that he was willing to be the one.

Abandoned for nearly a decade, the Kalawao community had collapsed into chaos by the time Damien had arrived.  The neglect had resulted in despair, drunkenness, licentiousness and abuse.

Upon entering Kalawao, to the outside world Damien became an instant hero.  Inside Kalawao, he was doctor, nurse, carpenter, engineer, farmer, legal advocate, landscaper, plumber, supplies producer, grave digger and coffin maker.

The Transformation of Kalawao and Its People:
Damien's Boys

St. Damien's transformation of Kalawao surprised many people.  He gave dignity and respect to a community previously left for dead.  With the help of the stronger patients, he built houses, an orphanage, and a church.  He enlarged the hospital, laid water pipes, and improved the boat landing and the road leading to the wharf.

Although, at times, he was physically repulsed by the infection, stench and disfigurement of Hansen's disease (Leprosy), he managed to treat its victims with compassion and a gentle touch.  Disregarding contemporary medical precautions, he ate with his people, accepted them into his house, and touched them.

Saint Damien visited the sick and every house in his settlement at least once a week.  He organized religious associations, a children's band, and a choir.  He even instituted  perpetual devotion of the Blessed Sacrament, a practice special to his religious Congregation.  The number of catechumens increased by tens and then hundreds.

First and foremost, Saint Damien was a priest and faithful to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts.  Into each day he scheduled prayer, adoration, meditation, Mass, the Divine Office, spiritual reading and the Rosary.  "Without the Blessed Sacrament, a position like mine would be intolerable." he wrote.

Saint Damien knew he had contracted Hansen's disease when, in 1884, he scalded his feet and felt no pain.  Over the next five years, he gradually succumbed to the ravages of the disease.  On April 15, 1889, the Monday of Holy Week, 16 years after setting foot at Kalaupapa, at age 49, Damien died.

Saint Damien's body was buried under the pandanus tree where he first slept an the settlement, beside St. Philomena Church.  It was where he wanted to be buried.  In 1936, at the request of the Belgian government, Saint Damien's body was exhumed and delivered to the country of his birth, Belgium, where it was laid to rest in St. Joseph Chapel in Louvain.

(By Anna Weaver for the Hawaii Catholic Herald on May 18, 2007)