April 15

1889 Death of a leper saint

Native Hawaiians in the 19th century were beset by the ravages of imported diseases to which they had no natural immunity: smallpox, cholera, influenza, and leprosy. Those who contracted leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease) were quarantined in villages on an isolated peninsula of the island of Molokai. There they lived in miserable conditions, demoralized and poorly supplied with essentials.

In 1873 the Catholic bishop decided that the lepers required the service of a priest. Four missionaries volunteered to go in rotation and the first to arrive was a Belgian of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary named Father Damien. He remained on the island for the rest of his life, treating the suffering with dignity, burying the dead, empowering leaders from among the community, and improving living conditions. Eventually hospitals, roads, schools and a church were built to serve the victims of leprosy. After serving there for 11 years he contracted the disease but carried on there until his death in 1889. He was buried on Molokai but the King of the Belgians asked for his body to be returned to his native land where it as interred near to his home village. In 1995 one of his hands was returned to Hawaii and is laid in his original grave.

In 2008 the Catholic Church declared him to be a saint. The anniversary of his death is a holiday in Hawaii.

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