When the offer came to volunteer to go to an island filled with victims of leprosy nearly all the way across the globe and knowing that if he volunteered he may contract leprosy and never to be able to return to the civilized world, let alone to his home and his parents in Belgium, he still volunteered – so clear was his resolve to serve Christ in the mission territories.
So isolated was the village settlement at Kalaupapa that he was sent to, that the only access was by mule track. The spot was chosen as a place of real quarantine so that lepers could be sent there and raise their own food, etc. The conditions when Damien arrived there were totally depraved. The suffering from their illnesses left them totally debilitated and the camp had declined into total moral and even human depravity.
Fr. Damien arrived in May of 1873 with a letter from the bishop of the diocese. It presented him to the people as one who would “…be a father to you and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.” Six months after his arrival, he wrote to his brother in Belgium, “…I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all for Jesus Christ.”
Damien built houses and created work programs. He started an orphanage and devised ways to bring medicines to the island and for the visitation of a doctor. Eventually he built a church and started to instruct people in the faith. He contracted leprosy himself and felt that he truly had identified finally with the people whom he was sent to serve. He died of the illness on April 15, 1889, and his body was laid to rest in the cemetery at the foot of a pandanus tree where he had first rested when he came to the island 16 years earlier. His feast day will celebrated on May 10 and he is the patron of those with leprosy, HIV-AIDS, and all those who are outcasts of society.
Fr. Damien’s body is buried in Louvain at the Church of the Picpus Fathers, in a special crypt that is located only three blocks from the American College, which you have read about in The Compass. Fr. Damien attended the Catholic University of Louvain for his seminary theology training while living at the Sacred Heart Fathers’ residence. The American College of the Immaculate Conception, the seminary of the American bishops whose board I have the honor of chairing, is very proud to know that Fr. Damien, who served the church in our country so courageously and nobly, is buried so very close to the seminary.
Often the seminarians walk to the crypt and pray to Damien. I myself have made that short trek many times as a student at the American College and it proved to be always a great source of solace and inspiration to visit his tomb there in Louvain. I also find it very interesting that Damien prayed before the statue of St. Francis Xavier to answer his prayers to become a missionary and St. Francis Xavier is the patron of the Diocese of Green Bay. May St. Francis Xavier and now St. Damien the Leper, bless this diocese in our new mission, the “new evangelization,” to usher in a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit.