Damien: Gentle shepherd, fierce defender

She stepped off the plane with a broad smile on her lovely face and gave me a big squeeze as I welcomed her. “The Miracle Girl,” Audrey Toguchi, who credits the intercession of Father Damien with her miraculous cure from cancer, had come to Kalaupapa to join us in celebrating St. Damien’s feast day. Shortly thereafter we climbed aboard my paddy wagon and rode out to St. Philomena in Kalawao to celebrate Mass in honor of St. Damien in the church he himself built. Led in song by the St. John’s choir, we had a beautiful celebration. Since I was the homilist on this occasion, I now offer my homily to you in lieu of further details.

Franciscus “Frans” de Veuster was a small farmer of modest means in the village of Tremeloo, Belgium. He was a Catholic and a church-goer, at least part time. Ann Catherine Woulters was a devout Catholic, a fiery mother, intimately involved in her religion and in bringing up her children in the faith. Then one day they met at the bridge below the town and it was love at first sight. Of their subsequent union in Marriage there would be born eight children, the seventh of whom would be a boy named Joseph.

Joseph grew up doing many of the things that other youngsters were involved in, including occasional mischief and daredevil stuff, but he was also different in some ways. As a young boy he often went off into the fields to play with the lambs and to spend time with their shepherds. So it is not surprising that he came to be known as the Little Shepherd. Perhaps this was a foreshadowing of his priestly pastorship as the gentle shepherd and the fierce defender of his flock.

“You may stay as long as your devotion dictates.” We now flash forward to that day and that moment when Joseph Damien de Veuster read these words in a letter from his Sacred Hearts religious superior informing him that he now had permission to stay on Molokai to continue the work he had already begun as gentle shepherd and defender of his flock. We ourselves can only try to imagine his thoughts as he pondered the magnitude of these words from the pen of his religious superior and the weight of this letter on his broad shoulders. On the one hand he must have felt elated that he had been granted his wish to stay for the rest of his life and on the other hand he had to have felt some degree of trepidation when considering the awesome task he was now undertaking.

Damien remained undaunted in the face of the obstacles that he knew he must face. That faith which had been nurtured at the feet of his beloved parents, a faith that he himself had nurtured even in childhood, would now empower him to take on all the obstacles and all the roadblocks he encountered with a fierce courage and a determination to match.

When I came here to Kalaupapa in the summer of 2006 to fill in for Father Joseph Hendriks, I was not too happy at first that I had to sleep in the church hall because the rectory floor was being tiled. Then I thought of Damien and I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed when I pictured Damien sleeping under a pandanus tree for several weeks when he first arrived in the company of ants, roaches, centipedes, cats, dogs and other creatures. I do not know if mongoose had made it to Kalawao at that time. Damien could have slept in the little chapel here but he chose to sleep under that tree in solidarity with all of the unfortunate patients in a similar situation. Many books on Damien’s life mention this fact but perhaps do not emphasize enough the impact of this action by Damien on his suffering people. While his words brought comfort to the sick and the dying, his actions spoke much louder of the love in his heart for them.

In all things, as has been written, those afflicted with the terrible disease of leprosy came first for Damien. This was clear from how he treated them and fought for them. As Brother Dutton wrote, “He was a headstrong man, vehement and excitable in regard to matters that did not seem right to him and sometimes he said and did things that he afterwards regretted, but he always had a true desire to do right.” Damien was a human being, quick to smile and of pleasant disposition, a man of warm and tender heart. For Damien, Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Like Damien, may Jesus’ Way always be our way. Amen.

Anchor columnist Father Killilea is pastor of St. Francis Parish in Kalaupapa, Hawaii.   

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