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Father Damien arrives at Kalaupapa
Joseph de Veuster was born in 1840 in Tremeloo, Belgium, to a family of grain-growing peasants. Religious even as a youth, Joseph entered the Sacred Hearts Congregation at Louvain as a postulant in 1859. It was the first step that would take him on the road to immortality as Father Damien, benefactor of the lepers of Moloka'i.
After completing his training in Louvain, Damien was assigned to the Sacred Hearts Mission in Hawai'i and was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu in 1864. On a visit with his bishop to the leper settlement at Kalawao in 1873, Damien was struck by the suffering and almost total abandonment of the victims. He remained behind, deciding to dedicate his life to the alleviation of their physical and spiritual misery.
In the 1860s, leprosy had spread with alarming speed in the Islands, particularly among native Hawaiians. Medical opinion of the time held that the only way to halt the spread of the disease was isolation of the victims. The Hawaiian Legislature passed the "Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy," and chose Kalawao on Kalaupapa, a peninsula on Molokai's north shore, as a place of resettlement.
In 1866, the first boatload of patients arrived at Kalaupapa from Honolulu. Cut off from the rest of Moloka'i by steep cliffs and hemmed in by rough seas, patients were isolated from society and family members. They also found the settlement's hospital had no beds or medicines and doctors were in short supply, while food shipments were unreliable. Living in sordid conditions, most patients gave in to depression, hopelessness and a lawless lifestyle.
Damien refused to remain separate from the community he came to serve. He worked alongside patients and helped them obtain better food, warm clothing, adequate housing and clean potable water. He also built chapels and orphanages. His enthusiastic and loving closeness to the lepers exacted its toll and in 1883 Damien contracted the disease. He died in 1889 and was buried under the tree where he had spent his first nights at the settlement. At the request of the Belgium government, his body was returned in 1936 to the village of his birth.
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