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Father Damien

Father Damien About To Make Flemish History

By Leo Cendrowicz, published in Flanders Today,, October 7, 2009, edition #100
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The Catholic Church has created thousands of saints over the centuries, but few have displayed the courage of the Flemish missionary due to be canonised on Sunday, 11 October.

Joseph de Veuster, better known as Pater Damiaan (Father Damien), has become a beloved figure the world over for his work caring for sufferers of Hansen's disease, or leprosy, in Hawaii in the latter part of the 19th century.
Defying conventions that said he should avoid the leper colony, Damien embraced it, rebuilding their village and, in the process, catching the fatal disease himself. An inspiration for the likes of Gandhi and Mother Theresa, Damien is today the spiritual patron for lepers, HIV/Aids patients and outcasts.

He is also a hero for Flanders: in 2005, TV audiences voted Damien de Grootste Belg, or The Greatest Belgian.
Pope Benedict XVI will canonise Damien in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome before a crowd estimated at 100,000. Flanders has been celebrating all year under the slogan "Damien Inspires", and the days before and after the canonisation will see a number of events, including exhibitions, tours, processions, graveside vigils and, of course, church services.

Most of these will take place in Tremelo, where Damien was born and where the Damien Museum is located, and the nearby Leuven, site of his crypt and the Damien Documentation and Information Centre.

Vital Van Dessel, the mayor of Tremelo, invited Barack Obama, who spent part of his youth in Hawaii, to the celebrations this weekend. The US president politely declined, but the US Ambassador, Howard Gutman, will read a message from the President in the city on Sunday.

Nonetheless, Tremelo should brace itself. "Tremelo held a parade on the centenary of Damien's death in 1989, which drew 17,000 people," says Van Dessel. "But the canonisation is much bigger."

The mayor is unabashed in hailing Damien as his personal hero. "Every time has its own heroes, but, for me, Father Damien remains the greatest," he says. "He always inspires me, even though it is hard to follow his example. He was a man who gave everything without expecting anything in return."

Who is Father Damien?

The man who became a model for charity was born in 1840, the seventh of eight children, in a region beset by failed potato and grain harvests. The young "Jef " - described as square, sturdy and well-conditioned - took his solemn vows at the age of 21 in the French monastery church of Issy.

He chose the name Damien after a young doctor who died a martyr's death in the fourth century. At the age of 23, before he had even completed his novitiate, he sailed for Hawaii to work as a missionary. Soon after arriving, he was ordained in Honolulu.
During his early years in Hawaii - then an independent kingdom - Damien explored much of the archipelago and learned the local language. He was stationed for nine years in the Puna district. His decision to tend to the needs of lepers on the island of Molokai came in 1873, almost a decade after his arrival.

It is hard today to imagine the stigma of leprosy at the time and the nerve it took to volunteer to treat sufferers. Ever since the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, native Hawaiians had been devastated by European diseases like smallpox, influenza, cholera,
measles and, worst of all, leprosy. In the 100 years between 1770 and 1870, the local population plummeted from 250,000 to 50,000.

A policy was introduced in 1873 to isolate those afflicted by leprosy - described by locals as the "separating sickness" - not only because of the fear of contagion, but because the authorities feared such a disfiguring disease would spoil the archipelago's beautiful and prosperous image. Before long, those showing the first symptoms were being systematically rounded up and isolated on the Kalaupapa peninsula of Molokai Island.

The Catholic missions decided that four young priests would take turns working on Molokai Island, thus ensuring that missionaries would always be present but would not have to endure a long stay in such a frightful environment. But when he heard about the mission, Damien begged the Catholic Prefect Apostolic to send him there. A week later, he arrived at the colony, a lawless chaos whose 800 filthy inhabitants lived a slow death in huts, with only one another's company and the sweet intoxicating juice of the ti tree for distraction.

Damien changed that. His primary concern was to restore a sense of personal dignity and value. With help only from the few lepers who were capable of it, he built cottages, an aqueduct, schools, a church and a dispensary. Later, they enlarged the hospital, improved the landing and the road leading to the wharf, opened a store with free provisions, grew vegetable gardens and even started a choir and a band.

Damien quite literally built the community of Kalaupapa. He organised a parish, set up associations, celebrated the Eucharist, performed marriages, baptised the newly born, took confession, visited the sick and administered last sacraments. During his time
there, he conducted 6,000 funerals and personally constructed 2,000 coffins.

He became a beloved, if eccentric, figure; he wore a flowered native dress under his cape, tied up the brim of his battered clerical hat with string. And in a very literal sense, he embraced his flock. He washed their bodies, bandaged their wounds, tidied their rooms and hugged them unflinchingly.

The death of Damien

One Sunday in 1885, Father Damien opened his sermon not with the customary "Brethren" but simply: "We lepers". During the next five years his face took on the signs of leprosy: leonine, patchy, with thick lips. Despite his disfigurement, he made no changes in his life and continued his work.

He died in 1889 at the age of 49. He was carried to his grave by a cortege of weeping lepers, many blind and sick, and buried a few yards from an open field that is believed to contain as many as 2,000 unmarked graves. Less than two months after his death, a Leprosy Fund was founded in London, the first organisation devoted to helping victims of the disease. As the years went on, Damien's name was used by associations around the world that were set up to combat the disease: Damien-Dutton Society in the US, Friends of Father Damien in the Belgian Congo, Damien Foundation in Korea.

Though his grave still marks his burial place, Damien's body did not stay in Hawaii. King Leopold III, mourning over the death in 1935 of his wife Queen Astrid, decided he would find peace having Damien re-buried in Belgium. The priest's remains were dug up and sent half way around the world in a zinc-lined coffin of koa wood, covered by the American flag.

When the boat carrying the casket arrived in Antwerp in 1936, it was greeted by the most prominent figures of church and state in Belgium, including the king, Prime Minister Paul van Zeeland and Jozef-Ernest Cardinal van Roey.

But Damien is still beloved in Hawaii. His statue is one of the two the state sent to the Capitol's Statuary Hall in Washington DC - the same statue can also be found in Honolulu in front of the State Senate building. Honolulu's Damien Memorial High School carries his name, while the local Damien Museum is located on the grounds of St Augustine Church in Waikiki.

Much has changed since Damien's time. Leprosy has been curable since the development of sulfone drugs in the 1940s, and those treated with drugs are not contagious. Hawaii scrapped the exile policy in 1969. Patients sent to Molokai before 1969 are free to leave, but many chose to stay at the Kalaupapa settlement. About 100 people live there, including care workers and patients. Eleven of the about 20 aging patients still living at Kalaupapa will make the trip to Rome for Damien's canonisation.

At the ceremony, Pope Benedict will give Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva a small box containing one of Damien's tarsal bones, which had been kept in the archive of the Fathers of Holy Hearts in Leuven. In the three weeks that follow, the relic will be hand-carried to celebration ceremonies throughout Hawaii before finally ending up at its permanent home in Honolulu Cathedral, the church where Father Damien was ordained. But by then, of course, he will be Saint Damien.