The history of the Christian missionary movement that got underway in the nineteenth century and lasted well into the twentieth characterized the whole of Western Christianity at the time – Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant.
The missionary movement was part of the large-scale religious revival that followed the 18th-century Enlightenment thinking and the bloody French Revolution.
Joseph De Veuster was born in Tremeloo, Belgium, in 1840. Like his older brother Pamphile, Joseph studied to be a Catholic priest in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts.
Pamphile was to serve as a missionary in the far distant ‘Sandwich Islands,’ but when it came time for him to depart he was too ill to go. His brother Joseph went in his place. (NPS)
Joseph arrived in the Islands on March 9, 1864; he had the remainder of the schooling at Sacred Hearts Father’s College of Ahuimanu, founded by the Catholic mission on the Windward side of Oʻahu in 1846.
“The college and the schools are doing well. But as the number of pupils is continually on the increase, it has become necessary to enlarge the college. First we have added a story and a top floor with an attic; then we have been obliged to construct a new building. And yet we are lacking room.” (Yzendoorn)
Bishop Maigret ordained Father Damien de Veuster at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, on May 21, 1864. “Here I am a priest, dear parents, here I am a missionary in a corrupt, heretical, idolatrous country. How great my obligations are! How great my apostolic zeal must be!” (Damien to parents; Daws)
Early in June, 1864, Maigret appointed Damien to Puna on the east coast of the island of Hawai‘i; another new missionary, Clement Evrard, was appointed to Kohala-Hāmākua.
Damien learned the Hawaiian language (he had just previously learned English during his long journey to Hawai‘i. His Hawaiian was far from perfect, but he could manage to get by with it. Damien’s name became ‘Kamiano.’
Like most Catholic missionaries of that time, he saw his mission in intense competition with that of the Protestant ‘heretics,’ who did not kneel while praying and who distributed the local kalo (taro,) instead of bread for communion and even water instead of wine. (de Volder)
Shortly after arriving in Puna, in a letter to Pamphile, Damien wrote, “I regret not being a poet or a good writer so as to describe our new country to you.” Although he had not yet seen the active Kilauea volcano erupting, he added, “from what the other Fathers say it seems there is nothing like it in the world to give a correct idea of Hell.” (Daws)
A few months in Puna taught Damien at first-hand what he had heard in advance from the Maui missionaries: that life in the field was nothing like life as a novice in the religious order in Europe.
“Instead of a tranquil and withdrawn life, it is a question of getting used to traveling by land and sea, on horseback and on foot; instead of strictly observing silence, it is necessary to learn to speak several languages with all kinds of people …”
“… instead of being directed you have to direct others; and the hardest of all is to preserve, in the middle of a thousand miseries and vexations, the spirit of meditation and prayer.” (Damien in letter to father-general of the Sacred Hearts, 1862; Daws)
Father Clement Evard, his closest but distant neighbor, had an even more formidable area to cover: the double district of Kohala-Hāmākua, about a quarter of the Island. He was not as strong as Damien.
Damien carried his church on his back (a portable altar which he set up with four sticks pounded into the ground and a board balances on top with a cover cloth.)
His life was simple – with the help of the faithful, Damien began to do some small farming (keeping sheep pigs and chickens; bees for honey and wax for candle making; etc.) “The calabash of poi is always full; there is also meat; water in quantity, coffee and bread sometimes, wine and beer never.” (Daws)
Eight months after they arrived in their respective districts, Damien and Clement discussed exchanging posts; in early 1865, Damien left Puna for Kohala-Hāmākua.
Damien was a considerable builder of chapels. In the months he was in Puna, he and his Hawaiian helpers put up four small buildings where Mass was said; in the eight years he was in Kohala and Hāmākua, he almost always had one or another construction project in hand. (Daws)
Damien stayed in Kohala until 1873; then an impassioned plea appeared in a Hawaiian newspaper: “This we respectfully suggest. The presence of His Majesty (King Lunalilo) at Kalaupapa would have a most inspiring effect upon his unhappy subjects, who are necessarily exiled; and also upon all others throughout the Kingdom, on observing this evidence of a paternal care for the saddest and most hapless outcasts of the land.”
It went on to note, “If a noble Christian priest, preacher or sister should be inspired to go and sacrifice a life to console these poor wretches, that would be a royal soul to shine forever on the throne reared by human love.” (Nuhou, April 15, 1873; Report of Board of Health)
Maigret was aware the lepers needed stable spiritual support, but did not dare to permanently charge a priest to that assignment, fearing it was too much of a risk or too cruel. He asked, Who wanted to go, in rotation to Molokai, each for a period of three months?
Four candidates quickly volunteered: Gulstan Robert, Boniface Schaffer, Rupert Lauter and Damien de Veuster. Damien was chosen as the first to go; the reason for the choice is unknown. (de Volder)
At thirty-three years of age, he was as old as Jesus at the time of his passion. Damien was ready, more than ever. “Lord, send me!” (de Volder)
Damien spent the rest of his life in Hawaiʻi; he was diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease in January, 1885. He died April 15, 1889 (aged 49) at Kalaupapa. In 2009, Damien was canonized a Saint in the Catholic Church. The image is a portrait of Father Damien, attributed to Edward Clifford. (1868)