for Sunday, February 14, 2021
Today I want to tell you about a saint that you have heard me speak of before, only with a reference to some of our current concerns. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I had to do a book report for my high school religion class on a biography by John Farrow entitled Damien the Leper. That was my first exposure to the terrible leper colony of Kaluapapa on the Island of Molokai, one of the Hawaiian Islands. It was also my first exposure to the heroism and sanctity of St. Damien de Veuster, the Belgian Catholic Missionary who lived among the lepers and contracted leprosy himself.
A number of years ago, I had enough airline points to travel to Hawaii. I made it a point to visit Kaluapapa. Originally, I had thought that I could just take a ferry over to the Island of Molokai and then a bus to Kaluapapa. I found out that the patients at Kaluapapa did not want anyone visiting unless that person was with the then town sheriff, Richard, who organized one tour a day. So I took a small plane, one of those where every passenger has two window seats, and flew to the Kaluapapa Airport where Richard met me and four other people.
The approach to Kaluapapa was past the steep walls of Molokai descending into the ocean. These walls are steeper than the Big Sur of California or the Amalfi Coast of Italy. Then Kaluapapa appeared, a flat peninsula completely exposed to the weather, with those steep walls behind it serving as a prison for the lepers.
At the time of my trip there were about ninety patients still living in Kaluapapa, but with the advent of sulfides, their disease was treatable. In fact, modern day leprosy, known as Hanson's disease, is now recognized as the least contagious of all contagious diseases. The patients are free to come and go. They no longer have to live on Molokai. Richard, the town sheriff and tour guide, himself had leprosy but spent the last years of his live traveling the world and speaking about Kaluapapa and about Fr. Damien.
Up to seventy years ago, leprosy was feared and treated with a form of superstition. Before sulfides, leprosy was a terrible looking disease with sores throughout the body and blockages in the circulatory system resulting in parts of the body deteriorating. The people afflicted with leprosy were treated as though they were criminals. In Hawaii, as in other places throughout the world, hospitals would not treat lepers. Instead, the lepers were forced to live in colonies with laws separating them from society similar to those laws we heard in the first reading for today. In Hawaii the lepers were put into cages, shipped off to Molokai, and dumped into the ocean. Only those well enough to swim to shore would live. Richard said that most of the Polynesians, water people, were good swimmers, but many of the Asians, Europeans and Americans never made it to the shore. Once on shore, the lepers faced total chaos. Everyone was sick. There was no medicine, no doctors, no shelters, no blankets, nothing but the weather beating on the exposed peninsula.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Bishop of the Hawaiian Islands, the Bishop of Honolulu, heard that there were seven to ten Catholics among the two or three hundred lepers in Kaluapapa. There was a religious brother, I believe his name was Br. Andrew, on the big island of Hawaii who was a skilled carpenter. The bishop asked the brother to build a small Church on Maui, take it apart and number each piece. Then he was to go to Kaluapapa and reassemble the church. Br. Andrew and two Polynesian workmen did this, then they loaded the pieces onto a ship and headed out to Kaluapapa. But when the Polynesians saw the lepers they fled, probably hiding in the jungle. Soon after this, within hours, Brother Andrew flagged down a passing ship, and he and the workmen returned to Honolulu where he begged the bishop to never send him back to Kaluapapa.
Now, on the big island of Hawaii, there was a young priest from Belgium named Damien de Veuster. He had been a carpenter before he became a priest. Fr. Damien had built numerous small churches on the Big Island. The Bishop asked Fr. Damien to go to Kaluapapa and reassemble the little church that had been sent there. Fr. Damien was to have no contact with the lepers. The bishop did not have many priests, and he did not want to lose Fr. Damien. He told him that he was not to anoint or hear confessions of the lepers or to bury them or to have any contact with them at all.
When Fr. Damien first saw the lepers he was frightened. But he was different. He did not see the disease. He saw the people who were suffering. Fr. Damien was the first non leper to stay overnight on Kaluapapa. That first night he slept outside under a tree because he did not think it was right that he should build a shelter for himself if these poor sick people were exposed to the weather. He immediately began building shelters for the people. He constructed the Church and began saying Mass. He was shocked to find over a hundred people wanting to pray with him, even though less then ten of them were Catholic. He was the first to show Christ's love to them.
A ship came to pick up Fr. Damien after his 30-day medical visa expired, but the story goes that the lepers fought off the crew preventing them from landing and taking Fr. Damien. Richard said that that was not true; the lepers were too weak to do anything like that. Actually, the boson who was in charge of the landing party saw the lepers crying out that they didn't want Fr. Damien to leave. It was only after his death that the boson’s memoirs were revealed noting that one of those lepers was his sister. Fr. Damien wanted to stay, so the boson made up the story and left him there. At that time Honolulu was in the middle of battling an outbreak of the plague, so Fr. Damien's presence on Kaluapapa slipped through the cracks of the medical people on the island. Time would later reveal that the secretary who was entrusted with the task of making out the medical visas to approach Kaluapapa kept making up new visas for Fr. Damien. Her mother was on that island. After six months, no one wanted Fr. Damien to leave the leper colony. The medical people in Honolulu were convinced that after being there that long, he probably already had contracted leprosy.
So Fr. Damien stayed. He built shelters, a water system, and turned Kaluapapa into a little functioning community. He planted over a thousand trees to protect the people from the elements. He built the Church and prayed for the people and with the people. Lepers of all faiths and no faith went to his Masses. They said, "He holds our hands when we die." Fr. Damien wrote out to organizations around the world to provide help for these people and received shipments of blankets and food and the everyday supplies that are far more valuable than gold. One leper wrote, "Today is the happiest day of my life. Today I have received my blanket. This is my blanket. I will be buried in it. Today I have hope and joy, for I have experienced God's love."
Although leprosy is not as contagious as feared, Fr. Damien contracted leprosy, probably because he did not pay much attention to caring for his own health. Towards the end of his life Mother Marianne, St. Marianne Cope, and a group of sisters from Utica, New York, joined him on the island to continue his work and to build a hospital right there in Kaluapapa. After Fr. Damien died, Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote a vigorous defense of Damien’s life countering accusations of a minister, a Doctor Hyde of Honolulu, that questioned the accounts of Damien’s heroism and his sanctity. In 1995 Damien was beatified by Pope John Paul II. In 2009 he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.
On a little hill of Kaluapapa there is a cross with a few words from scripture that sums up what was at the heart of Fr. Damien's work. The words are from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians......."Love never fails."
In 1864 the United States Congress invited each state to erect two statues of prominent citizens in Statuary Hall and throughout the Capital building in Washington D. C. Since then all the states have followed this custom, some replacing statues with others such as California replacing one of its statues with one to honor Ronald Regan and Michigan doing the same to honor Gerald Ford. The State of Hawaii erected a statue of its unifying king, King Kamehameha, and a statue of its greatest citizen, St. Damien. What he and St. Marianne Cope did, their heroism, was extraordinary. They brought Jesus Christ to outcasts of society.
"A leper approached Jesus with a request, kneeling down as he addressed him. 'If you will to do so, you can cure me.' Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him and said: 'I do will it. Be cured.'"
Who are the outcasts of our society? Are the outcasts people with AIDS or other terrible illnesses? Are the outcasts the poor of the third world? Are the outcasts the immigrants? Are there outcasts in your family or my family? Is the outcast of your family or my family that son or daughter, brother or sister, or cousin who has embarrassed the family by getting involved with illegal activities or living an immoral lifestyle? Are we willing to reach out to them? Are we willing to touch the outcast, or are we afraid that we might become unclean? Perhaps, if we resume friendship with that difficult cousin, the rest of our family will have nothing to do with us. Unclean! Or if we make friends with that girl or guy in school or the office or neighborhood labeled by others as unworthy of anyone’s attention, we also will be rejected. Unclean! Or if we become advocates for migrants who work hard to send money to their impoverished families, then we will be accused of being aligned with the few bad among them who have done horrible things, even if the percentage of bad people among them is far less the percentage of evildoers who are American citizens. Still some will say to those who reach out to the immigrants, “Unclean!”
The example of St. Damien and the message of our gospel, is that we can reach out to those who are suffering and touch them with the healing power of Jesus Christ. Yes, by doing this we may open ourselves up to insult and attack from those around us. But we have been empowered with the healing touch of Jesus Christ. And that healing touch can conquer the pain around us.
Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him and said, 'I do will it. Be cured.'"
Love never fails.
Readings of the day:
First Reading: Leviticus 13.1-2, 45-46
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10.31 - 11.1
Gospel: Mark 1.40-45
This material is used with permission of its author, Rev. Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino, Diocese of St. Petersburg, FL. Visit his
Reflections are available for the following Sundays: