Untouched by development, this beautiful native Hawaiian 10-mile-wide island has over a hundred miles of shoreline, hidden waterfalls and ancient ruins. It doesn’t have a single traffic light!
This unspoiled paradise, however, has been a prison for 100 years to more than 8,000 people. In the 1800s, leprosy became more prevalent. And as there was no cure, countries around the world created specific colonies for the ill people to live in. In 1866, King Kamehameha V of Hawai’i created the Kalaupapa colony for leprosy on this island. When it was first created, there was no housing and patients were left to fend for themselves.
Enter Brother Damien
Damien became a “Picpus” Brother on 7 October 1860. His superiors thought that he was not a good candidate for the priesthood because he lacked education. However, because he learned Latin well from his brother, his superiors decided to allow him to become a priest. During his studies, Damien prayed daily to be sent on a mission. Three years later when Damien’s brother Father Pamphile could not travel to Hawai’i as a missionary because of illness, Damien was allowed to take his place.
In 1865, the Hawaiian Legislature passed the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. This law quarantined the lepers of Hawaii on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokaʻi.
From 1866 through 1969, a total of about 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula for medical quarantine. The place was lawless during the earlier years and it was suggested a priest be sent there.
Father Damien was the first priest to volunteer and, on 10 May 1873, he arrived at Kalaupapa, where 816 lepers then lived. Damien worked with them to build a church and establish the Parish of Saint Philomena. In addition to serving as a priest, he dressed residents’ ulcers, built a reservoir, built homes and furniture, made coffins, and dug graves. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao, he wrote to his brother:
…I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.
Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks were upgraded and improved as painted houses, working farms were organized, and schools were established. At his own request and of the lepers, Father Damien remained on Molokaʻi.
In December 1884 Damien realized he had contracted leprosy after 11 years of working in the colony. As he walked tearfully to deliver his sermon when he first realized this, no one at first noticed the difference in his opening line. He normally began every sermon with, “My fellow believers.” But this morning he began with, “My fellow lepers.”
Damien died of leprosy at 8:00 a.m. on 15 April 1889, aged 49.
In January 1936, King Leopold III of Belgium and the Belgian government, requested that Damien’s body be returned to his native land. After a protracted struggle, the lepers requested that at least Damien’s right hand be returned to Moloka’i since that was the hand that touched them. After his beatification in June 1995, the remains of St. Damien’s right hand were re-interred in his original grave on Molokaʻi.
In a greater measure Jesus came into this world knowing what it would cost him. He bore in his pure being the marks of evil, that we might be made pure. “For this I came into the world,” he said.