Father Damien, patron saint of lepers
After his primary education in a school in Werchter, Jozef de Veuster was sent to Braine-le-Comte to improve his French. He left for Leuven soon afterwards to apply to join the Priests of the Sacred Hearts of Picpus, a Christian missionary order founded in 1800. He began his novitiate and took the name of "Damien" in reference to Saint Damien, following in the footsteps of his elder brother Auguste.
He arrived in Honolulu at the age of 24. There, he was appointed a missionary priest and was often on the road, visiting Christian communities and building chapels. Leprosy was spreading very quickly at the time and Father Damien was sent to Molokai, where the government decided to establish a leper colony. In this purgatory, he became the lepers' pastor and doctor, while also building a real community with a church, a road, a hospital, a school and an orphanage and organising education and social activities. In 1884, however, he was affected by this dreadful disease himself. The news soon spread around the world and the media called him a hero; donations flooded in.
Despite his illness, Father Damien continued to work as a pastor and expand the two villages under his responsibility, receiving financial aid and donations. He continued his mission until two weeks before his death, on 15 April 1889.
Several tributes were paid to him. His body was repatriated to Belgium in 1936, where he was buried in the crypt of Saint Antoine Church in Leuven. Mahatma Gandhi paid tribute to the heroism of Father Damien in 1945. When Hawaii joined the federation of the United States, the statue of Father Damien was chosen and placed at the Capital in Washington as a person who played an important role in its history. He is the only non-American to have a bust at the Capitol in Washington.
A street in New York was named after Father Damien on 11 May 2015. "Father Damien Way" is the name of the section of East 33rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. As luck would have it, this street is close to three important hospitals, including the Bellevue Hospital Center which specialises in the treatment of leprosy. The new Father Damien Way is also home to the Chapel of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart, the congregation to which Damien belonged.
Action Damien, a Belgian non-governmental organisation, continues his work, fighting leprosy, tuberculosis and leishmaniosis in 14 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It funds scientific research (http://www.actiondamien.be/).
© Damiaan Vandaag