His cassock was worn and faded, his hair tumbled like a school-boy’s, his hands stained and hardened by toil; but the glow of health was in his face, the buoyancy of youth in his manner; while his ringing laugh, his ready sympathy, and his inspiring magnetism told of one who in any sphere might do a noble work, and who in that which he has chosen is doing the noblest of all works. This was Father Damien.He arrived in Honolulu on March 19, 1864. There he was ordained in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace on May 31 and took the name of Damien. His first calling was on the big island of Hawai’i, where he spent eight years. He often traveled great distances to minister to the people of his districts of Puna, followed by Kohala and Hamakua. In 1873 he learned of the need for priests to serve the 700 Hansen’s disease victims confined on the island of Moloka’i. He and three other priests volunteered to go in succession. Damien was the first, and soon he was on a boat carrying cattle and 50 patients bound for Kalawao.
Damien was the most famous but not the first caregiver or religious worker to arrive at Kalawao. He followed Congregational ministers, Catholic priests, Mormon elders, and family and friends of patients who went voluntarily to Kalawao to help. Slowly, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope. He spoke the Hawaiian language. Assisted by patients, he built houses, constructed a water system, and planted trees. He also organized schools, bands, and choirs. He provided medical care for the living and buried the dead. He expanded St. Philomena Catholic Church. Not a “retiring” personality, Damien did not hesitate to badger the Hawaiian government and his church for more resources. These efforts attracted worldwide attention, resulting in a heightened awareness of the disease and the plight of its victims.
During Father Damien’s years at Kalawao, others came to help. A number of priests spent varying lengths of time. In 1886 Joseph Dutton arrived, followed in 1888 by Mother Marianne Cope and two of her sisters from the Order of St. Francis. They, along with four Brothers of the Sacred Heart who arrived in 1895, carried Damien’s work into the next century.
Father Damien had lived in Kalawao 12 years when it was confirmed that he had contracted Hansen’s disease. Although the disease is not highly contagious, Damien had not been careful about hygiene. Over the years he had done nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl shared with other patients. He shared his pipe. And he did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores.
Damien was 49 years old when he died April 15, 1889, at Kalawao with Mother Marianne at his bedside. Shortly before his death, he wrote his brother Pamphile, “I am gently going to my grave. It is the will of God, and I thank Him very much for letting me die of the same disease and in the same way as my lepers. I am very satisfied and very happy.” He was buried in the cemetery next to his church, St. Philomena. The people of Kalawao had lost their strongest voice.
Damien’s death was widely noted throughout Hawai’i and in Europe. As the years passed, his life of devotion served to inspire thousands. Because Kalaupapa remained an isolation settlement and the world could not come to his church and grave, Damien’s remains were exhumed in 1936 and reburied at Louvain, Belgium. In 1995 a relic composed of the remains of his right hand was returned to his original grave at Kalawao, to the great joy of Kalaupapa and the rest of Hawai’i. Damien’s life of service to the sick and outcast continues to serve as an inspiration.