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1889 A.D.:  Josef (Damien) de Veuster Ends His Earthly Service To Jesus



Father Damien, young and old, who used himself all up quite fully for the Lord!

  Molokai is an island in the middle of the Hawaiian Islands chain, the State of Hawaii's 5th largest island with about 360 sq miles of land, but it's so steep and rugged in places that only about 3/4 of the land is usable as living space.  To emphasize the point, it has the world's highest sea cliffs; they rise from 3,600 to 3,900 feet above the ocean.  

  It's considered a very unspoiled and natural island even today, with about 8,000 people and 'no buildings taller than a palm tree' as some sites say.  There are roads for cars, and apparently 5 mph is a typical enough driving speed, with lots of waving at those you pass.  Molokai is sometimes called the 'friendly island'. 

  That it's quite beautiful I could see from the photos, though perhaps less enviromentally hospitable than some other of the Hawaiian Islands.  It gets the heavy rains and the storms, but many areas are more open and have less tree cover.  Over-grazing by goats has partially denuded considerable portions of the island, some sites mentioned.  But, to the eye, it is fair to say that Molokai is a beautiful island.  From several vantage points on Molokai you can look across the sea and see portions of two of the other islands, or spot their lights at night.

  It's believed currently that Molokai has been inhabited from somewhere between 650 A.D. and 800 A.D. by early sea faring pioneers of the Polynesian stock.  Opinions vary as to exactly who these particular Polynesians were.  There are some indications that the most immediate predecessors of the Hawaiian Polynesians were Tahitian Polynesians that paddled the additional distance from Tahiti and found the Hawaiian Islands. 

  As to the Polynesians' earliest origins, scholars used to say that they came from Malaysia, but now it seems that this opinion has given way to the idea that the Malaysians came after the Polynesians, not before them.  A portion of ethnologists believe that at about the time of Abraham (around 2,000 B.C., when the marching orders from God were to go and form colonies throughout the post-flood Earth) a people emigrated from Taiwan, settled and passed through the Phillipinnes, onward to other islands from eastern Micronesia and north-west New  Gineau to Melanesia by about 1400 B.C. (about the time that Moses was leading the Hebrew slaves, the sons and daughters of Jacob/Israel, out of Egypt.)  From there they more slowly spread out, settling various island groups.  They were great sailors, and able navigators.  Polynesian comes from the Greek: Polys = many.  Nesos = islands.  (Like I speak Greek!!...not!!!  But I did look it up.) 

  Some other experts now even place the origin of the Polynesian people stock as Aryan (Assyrian) pioneers or refugees that traveled through India and then eventually to the Islands near India and from there to many islands all across the Pacific.  But, much is speculation, and that new Aryan idea too may change....probably will change!  Maybe DNA will help take the speculation out of it at some point.   

  How they initially lived is on somewhat firmer ground; most opinions I found thought the evidence indicated that the earliest Hawaiian inhabitants both fished, and brought food seeds and plants like onions, sweet potatoes, taro, and other edible vegetation in their outrigger boats to plant and farm in the lands they might land upon.  They also brought pigs, which would partly fend for themselves, and which they additionally   fattened up using the extra sweet potatoes, etc. Then the pigs were both eaten and used for trade with other villages, and at times with other islands. 

  When Europeans first found the Hawaiian Islands they were quick to describe them as a beautiful paradise with a handsome and hearty people living there - their praise was high.  But, as was the common theme where ever Europeans first met natives in what is today termed the Americas, there were clashes on the large scale and the small. 

  The Europeans were quick to exploit both the peoples and the lands of Hawaii on the large scale, and the Hawaiians fought back.  There were brave battles but the technological advantage lay decidedly with the Europeans.  But on the small scale, the new virus, bacteria, and other European sorts of disease and ailments found little opposition in the native population's immunity systems.  Smallpox, measels, chicken pox, and mumps and syphillus were all mighty killers, sweeping through and vastly reducing the populations, ravaging young and old alike.  And it was oddly one sided.  Generally speaking, their own Hawaiian diseases were not quite so devastating to the European and other foreign invaders.  In fact, I did not even read of a single damaging 'Hawaiian' disease passed on to the Europeans, though there may possibly have been some. 

  One malady in particular began to spread surprisingly quickly to the Hawaiian population, though originating perhaps more from the Chinese:  Lleprosy (Hansen's disease) had come to 'paradise', and was expanding at a steady and threatening rate.  And it was no pretty disease.  It became somewhat alarming to the Hawaiian people.  Not only was it a terrible looking disease that slowly ate away at the flesh of the sufferer, eventually disabling them and disfiguring their appearance, but it also ended in death.

  Below is an example of one type of leprous skin: 

  Severely leprous skin presentation   

  Leprosy actually spreads pretty slowly; it's not so very easy to catch it from someone.  A great deal of the human population actually has a natural immunity to it.  And it is not uncommon for a man to contract leprosy and maintain normal ralations with a wife who never does contract it. 

  But when it does spread, it spreads from person to person mostly by physical contact with a leper.  Once contracted, leprosy tends to destroy flesh for a while, then go into remission for widely varying periods of time, then reactivate and ravage flesh again for a while.  Leprosy starts with subtle signs, tinglings, etc., then builds up.  It is most active in cooler areas of our flesh such as limbs and face.  Skin gets light colored patches and numbness begins, then temperature sensitivity of the skin goes away - you can't feel yourself being burned as easily - followed by pressure sensitivity loss, eye dryness in some, then finally the deep ulcers that make it so disfiguring - ulcers on the face, the limbs, and elsewhere.  Often fingers and toes must be removed towards the end.  Not a fun death for the most part.     

  Hawaiians were a very amorous people, their ways would have seemed pretty sexually uninhibited to arriving Europeans, who did the same sorts of things as the Hawaiians, did those things with the Hawaiians, but called it sin.  That Hawaiian enthusiasm for physical relations helped leprosy to spread much more easily in their culture. 

  Any disease that spreads in that manner causes public fear and also lends itself to control by quarantine, and as leprosy became ever more serious in the 1800's, growing public concern finally demanded action.  In 1865, as the 48 states ended the Civil War and began to try to recover the Hawaiian legislature under King Kameha-meha passed the "Control of the Spread of Leprosy Act".  It was decided that lepers would be taken to relatively unpopulated Molokai to live in an isolated colony.  An area on the north side of Molokai would be Hawaii's new  leper colony.  It would be called Lalaupapa.  The Hawaiian governments intention was never to treat the lepers cruelly, but from the beginning the funding was not what was needed to make it very liveable there, nor was enough attention really given to actual ground conditions at the colony the Hawaiian government created.    

  Some say that Molokai is shaped like a shark, and the flat open area where the colony was placed was essentially on the shark's 'top fin'.  On three sides of the colony's location the ocean kept it isolated from the rest of Molokai, and on the south side the towering cliffs did the same.

  The formative years of the colony were rough, but varied a little over this time period!  When a new group of lepers arrived on Molokai a ship bringing the supplies that the lepers needed often brought the new lepers as well, and, when close to shore, they sometimes instructed them to jump off the ship into the ocean and swim their way in because the sailors wished to minimize contact with those that came to be referred to as "the horribles".  A few drowned, sources note, never even getting a chance to dwell on their new island.  But those drownings weren't intended, just a sign of the fear that was felt towards leprosy. 

  At other times a rope would be thrown to shore to a waiting leper, and the arriving lepers would jump into the water and go hand over hand until they made land.  Supplies, it was said, were sometimes just heaved overboard toward land, the waves being relied upon to wash them on in to shore.  Or the lepers could swim out and get the floating crates and boxes if they wished.  The men on the ships had their fears of the dread disease and it's carriers.  Not so much was known about leprosy then, except that it brought on a frightful and disfigured death, and it was contagious. 

  Once on land, things didn't cheer up much for the new arrivals during the first half dozen years of the colony's existence.  There were no houses!  No real constructions at all but a few cheap shacks, the early reports say.  The lepers often lived in caves, or stacked rocks to form shelters, or arranged branches and twigs into a sufficient place to dwell and be somewhat out of the weather.  The 'shacks' were far too few.  When the big storms came, when the rain came, when it was cold...they just did as well as they they could.  

  Some sites remarked that in the early years of the colony the dead lepers were buried with such disregard by their fellow lepers - in such shallow and slipshod graves - that it was not that unusual for dogs and pigs to dig them out and feed upon them.   

  Simply put  the writings from the time say they lived much like animals on Molokai in those early years, dependent for the most part on supplies shipped in from other islands.  They abused each other at times, they did not work industriously to improve their condition, they got drunk with each other at times from home brew made from local roots or foodstuffs, they had orgies together at times (frequently, it was reported).  For the most part they just tried to take what carnal or fleshly joy they could from the remaining years of their life as they died.  They struggles a losing battle against this painful and disfiguring disease that had made them an evicted scourge to the other 'decent men and women' of their society.  Many lepers had no relatives on Molokai....some were essentially alone there and seperated from all of their former friends and family.

  There was a solution coming to the lepers on Molokai in the form of a small and determined young Priest originally from Belgium named Father Damien de Veuster.  He had prayed during his priestly training years - for 3 years running- to St. Francis Xavier (known to the Catholic church as the Patron Saint of Missionaries) that he would be allowed to be a missionary.  And he was lucky enough to be chosen.  He went to the State of Hawaii  in 1864. 

  At a certain point in the 1870's Bishop Louis Desire Maigret (vicar apostolic) decided with others that there rightfully ought to be a priest on Molokai to give mass, spiritually guide and shepherd the lepers, and to administer last rights and read at funerals.  But the Bishop realized that it was almost the equivalent of a death sentence...that the Priest would likely contract leprosy, and so he asked only for volunteers.   

  After prayer, four priests, including Father Damien) volunteered to go to Molokai in rotating shifts.  But Father Damien went there on May 10, 1873, and then asked for permission to have it as his permanent assignment.  He had found his niche for Jesus there at that small patch of hell in paradise with the 800 plus lepers dwelling there at that time. 

  He would write his brother and say:  "I make myself a leper to gain all to Jesus Christ." 



  Father Damien's Time On the Island

  Damien was not a man without skills.  He was a builder, he knew about the construction of dwellings.  When he first arrived on Molokai his dwelling place was beneath the partial shelter of a Pandanus tree limb, and that lasted for a while.

                                                                 A Type of Hawaiian Pandanus Tree 

   But even from the beginning Father Damien looked around at the primitive makeshift dwellings that were sufficing for shelters and he became determined to make something much better for the lepers to live in.  He also believed in imposing on any leper that happened to be near and available to become part of whatever current project he had in mind.  Though the leper culture when he first arrived could not be portrayed as being especially industrious, he found them willing to help when asked for the most part.  They were a despised and abandoned people living without much hope, but they came from many walks of life, and some of them had valuable work skills and experience.  Father Damien first built a church, and it was called the Parish of St. Philomeno.  He built for himself a place to sleep and dwell on the back of the church. 

  Damien was soon found to be a man of extreme ambition and perseverence.  A movie about his life claims he helped to dig over 1000 leper graves during his time on the island, and anyone who has ever taken a shovel and tried to dig even one hole that size must have some appreciation for the amount of muscle power and determination that 1000 graves would take, even if you worked as a crew.  And these weren't the shabby shallow graves in vogue when he arrived - these were proper Christian graves.

  Some writings about him say that when he considered how best to improve the sense of self dignity within the leper colony that he had come to serve he arrived upon the idea that it might be smart to begin by insisting as best he was able that all deceased lepers be given a dignified death.  That their peers should put a little time and thought into providing for their funeral, and marking their memory since each leper was a child of God and hopefully a follower of Jesus....that each person was someone that mattered.  There began to be an organized looking cemetary!


  Caring For the Lepers Medically 

   Father Damien had learned a little about the care of leprosy.  It is a foul disease in many ways, one of them being that the wounds where the despoiled flesh rots away put out a horrible odor.  Some of those who wrote about visiting the colony (once there were houses for the lepers to live in) wrote about spoke of what a wall of horrid fetid odor you encountered when you stepped into a small house where one or more residents were suffering from the more advanced stages of the disease; some visitors were literally sickened.  Sometimes visitors spoke to the residents within from the open door of their houses because they simply couldn't stomach the smell.  And Father Damien did this at times.  But he also cared for and loved these people hands on, accepting the associated horrors of a dying leper for the sake of loving the person and soul that God had placed before him. 

 In some of the earlier Damien years, when doctors would come to the island and check out the progress of the treated wounds of various leper patients that they had recommended various treatments for, it was mentioned that some doctors would lift the lepers dressing bandage with the tip of their cane to avoid coming too near.  Damien  more commonly knelt before them and removed the dressing by hand and treated wounds directly, and in a kind and supportive way.  He actually cared for the lepers, sharing the joys and horrors of their life, and they knew this. 

  Years went by with Damien constructing houses and community structures, caring for the physical needs of his charges, and being their Priest as well.  The character of the colony changed greatly.  But then, in 1884, while reparing to bathe, Damien apparently stepped into some scalding hot water accidentally.  But...he felt no pain.  He realized what this meant...he was now one with his flock in the grip of the disease they all were dying from. 

  This only spurred him on harder to do as much as he could before being called to the Lord, it is said, though in the very end the disease did make it nearly impossible to continue working.   

  About 5 years after discovering that he was himself a leper, on April 15, 1889, Father Damien died of his leprosy.  He had been given a fair amount of time to prepare for his approaching demise, and he had used the time to work vigorously on the building of houses and the continued improvement of the material and spiritual quality of leper life on Molokai.   

 But before passing away he had gained four strong and able helpers in his ministry there on Molokai, to carry on after him.  Louis Conrardy was a Belgian Catholic Priest that replaced Damien as the Priest to the lepers.  Mother Marianne Cope had heard about Molokai while heading a Franciscan run hospital in Syracuse New York, and had come to join her efforts to the cause.  A veteran of the American Civil War and a recovering alcoholic named Joseph Dutton had become staff there on Molokai.  And a Chicago nurse named James Sinnett had come to join the cause, and had been the one who nursed Father Damien during his final months.  Damien's efforts were not in vain, and were continued on after his death in the spirit in which they had been begun.

  Visitor to the leper colony after Damien had poured his life into it for Christ spoke of a place that hardly sounded the same at all.  They spoke of neat cottages, an organized little community.  They spoke of a very happy group of people doing their best to enjoy their lot during the days they had left on Earth. 

  One account of the leper colony after Damien had come is of the horse races observed by visitors on a certain sunny day.  A good sized crowd gathered to cheer on the racers and their horses, and there was much excitement.  Then, a second race was watched by the visitors of a nature quite different from the first:  the riders had to ride each others mounts, be they horses or donkeys, and each mount had been specially trained to perform as poorly as possible, and to avoid winning.  One donkey had been trained to squat down and not moved immediately upon being kicked in the flanks by it's rider to urge it on.  Another donkey understood the race to consist of running immediately to the fence so it could scrape the rider's leg all along the posts and boards as it trotted slowly along.  Others went slower as they were urged harder.  The watching crowd - who had previously observed this special sort of race - roared loudly at the riders resisted efforts to reach the finish line, and there was a great deal of good willed jeering and cheering, and happy comraderie amongst them all. 

   One man observed that he had never seen a happier bunch than the lepers on Molokai, who's needs were provided for by regularly arriving ships, and who had nothing to gain, and nothing to lose but their life.  One visitor said that he heard people - lepers - say that they would not live anywhere else, even if given the chance.  Though there were many that contributed to this change in atmosphere, Father Damien can certainly be given great credit for bringing so bright burning a light to this Molokai leper colony in it's darkest early days.  One person acting through God can have a shockingly large impact. 

  Sometimes a great miracle consists of a fulfilled prophecy from God.  Sometimes a great miracle is the power to miraculously heal, through God's Holy Spirit.  But love...the giving of love, the sharing of love, the showing of love - especially to those that no one else will love - is as great a miracle as there is.  True love for one's neighbor foils so many of Satan's plans, wrecks so many of his strategies, binds so many of the wounds he causes.  How can you destroy a people who love each other unreservedly in the name of Jesus?  After all, if Satan does such a people great damage, thus producing great pain and great need, it only provides that very people with a great many opportunities to love and comfort and serve each other in the name of Jesus, who is therefore rightfully acclaimed as great!!!  And if they, in their time of trouble, do reach out in Christian love to each other - to their fellow brother or sister in Christ - Jesus is given a great victory through Satan's vicious and hate filled attacks.  So, is it not a confounded Satan who fears to attack Christs people because of the wonderful love and good that will rise out of their pain?  How shall he conduct his war against such a people? 

  Father Damien was buried under the same Pandanus tree that he slept under when he first arrived.  But his body was moved to Belgium in 1936 due to his having become quite famous and something of a Belgium national treasure.  Damien has since become a Catholic Saint.  He was beatified in 1995 by Pope John Paul II.  He was finally canonized in 2009 by Pope Benedict, gaining official Sainthood with that denomination.  There had been verified miracles of healing in someone praying at his graveside and in someone who prayed in his name to Jesus.

  Father Josef de Veuster gave his life to Jesus, and like Jesus he cared for the lepers that others did not care to love and provide for.  And Jesus made His name well known even here on Earth.  An odd footnote to his story (hand note?) is that his right hand was removed and. as I understood it, reburied in the original grave in Molokai, apparently under that tree, that branch, that sheltered him during his earliest days there.

  Consider John 12: 23-26  :

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me."                   

  End Quote

  Seeds are often found under trees, right?  





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