He was once described as a “coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted.”
Aside from being bigoted, this introduction is a fair description of what Father Damien was. Separated from the rest of society, Father Damien spent his best years with those stricken with leprosy. While being considered coarse and dirty is far from the holy attributes that one would expect from a soon to be canonized Saint, that is just what he is.
Father Damien asked to go to Kalawao in 1873 in order to serve and comfort the six hundred leprosy sufferers at the isolated settlement on the island of Molokai. Newly arrived, full of vigor and health, the young priest took to his duties without the slightest hesitation while caring for people who most refused to acknowledge. Isolated from the rest of the population, these lepers were sent to Kalawao not to live but to die.
What was so remarkable about Father Damien was not his extraordinary ability as a preacher, for his words were simple and to the point. Nor was it his plain and rugged carpentry skills that he used to build much of the infrastructure from churches to residences. The most remarkable aspect about this man was his heart.
Father Damien can be best summarized by one of his biographers, Gavin Dawes who remarked, “He was no savant, no sophisticate, after all: just an earnest peasant hard at work in his own way for God.” With very few personal belongings or possessions, Father Damien took to God’s work with mostly a tool belt, bible and the clothes on his back. He asked for nothing in return but for the help towards his mission and the dignity of the people he had served. Although he died a peasant and a leper, this year we honor him as our newest Saint.
Last month as I stood before the grave site which once housed his body, I shook my head in disbelief at how such a person with such a common upbringing could take on a task with complete disregard for his own health and welfare and do uncommon things for people who had written off by the rest of the world. Today, his works still have meaning and are a great reminder to us that we can reach out and help strangers, comfort those less fortunate without an individual purpose other than to do God’s work.
As a Hawaiian prayer was being sung in the background by a group that will be going to the Vatican this fall, I thought to myself "remember this Josh: FEEL THIS." At that moment, it was just where I needed to be. I couldn't think of a better example of self sacrifice than the grave site before me.
Like Saint Theresa, Father Damien lived with a kind of humility that makes me feel like the most selfish human being on the planet. He lived and worked each day caring for the sickest people in the world, with the knowledge that he would never leave that island. Indeed, Father Damien would not leave Kalawao. He died of the very disease that he had worked so hard to stop. When asked if he wanted to be cured he replied no and instead saw leprosy as only shortening his road to heaven.
Up close Father Damien was not the saintly figure that we read about growing up. He was tough, impatient and came across as demanding, uncompromising and rude to outsiders. It has been said that “saints look better at a distance.” Although there may be some truth behind that statement, Father Damien is one that you want to get see up close. He is a figure whose heart and soul you want to touch. He is a man whose story only gets better and more intense as you begin to peel back the layers and investigate the man who gave all of himself for strangers. In fact, the more you know about Father Damien the more of his spirit will begin to be revealed. He helped those that were deemed "untouchable," and through his extraordinary strength this is exactly how I think he ought to be remembered.