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The suffering and faith of Saint Damien of Molokai

The famous priest, who was canonized by Benedict XVI in October 2009 and whose feast day is May 10th, “saw contracting leprosy as a stepping stone to his own holiness.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the CWR site on May 6, 2016. 

For more than a century, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have been sharing the heroic story of St. Damien of Molokai (1840-89), a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who left his native Belgium for the community’s mission in Hawaii. He spent the last 16 years of his life ministering to the lepers confined to the Kalaupapa and Kalawao regions of the island of Molokai, ultimately contracting and dying of the disease himself.

Damien was canonized in 2009; the Church celebrates his feast day on May 10. Closely linked to Fr. Damien is Sr. Marianne Cope (1838-1918), a Franciscan sister from New York who came with a group of sisters and nursed Fr. Damien as he was dying, then continuing his work on the island.

Fr. Herman Gomes is pastor of St. Ann Church in Kaneohe on the eastern side of Oahu—the same parish at which he served as an altar boy in his youth—and for 38 years has been a Sacred Hearts father, the same community to which Damien belonged. He has studied Damien’s life extensively, and is frequently called upon by the island’s Catholics to share the story of the saint. He has also traveled to Molokai to celebrate Mass and provide the sacraments for the few remaining patients—they prefer not to be referred to as “lepers”—who remain on Molokai by choice.

Fr. Gomes recently spoke to CWR.

CWR: What qualities do you admire most about Damien?

Fr. Herman Gomes: I have been teaching classes about him since 1994, and I’ve picked up a lot of information along the way. I would say I’m most impressed by his amazing and unflinching faith in God.

One of the best examples of this is when he discovered he had leprosy. He wrote a letter home saying that he had no illusion as to what this meant. For years he worked with those who had the disease, and had seen how it disfigured them and caused them so much pain and suffering. But he was able to write: “If this is what God wants for my sanctification, His will be done.”

Damien saw contracting leprosy as a stepping stone to his own holiness.

CWR: Damien holds a prominent place in Hawaii’s Catholic institutions. How do Hawaiians regard him?

Fr. Gomes: I believe they see him as a model of faith, a servant of God and a servant of humanity. He really was a great humanitarian. He came to Hawaii all the way from Belgium and lived 25 years here. He never went back. He was a true missionary.

He served nine years on the Big Island before volunteering to come to Kalaupapa. He was its resident priest for 16 years, the last four and a half with the disease.

CWR: He was well known, even in his own day.

Fr. Gomes: Yes, he became a world figure. People donated money from all over the world, and from as far away as England. He, in fact, had a conflict with his bishop over money, as people were not donating to the Hawaiian missions, but specifically to Fr. Damien’s settlement. The bishop thought the money should support all of the work of the Church on the Hawaiian Islands, whereas Damien thought it rightfully should go to his settlement.

CWR: When people visit the Hawaiian Islands and want to visit significant sites relating to Fr. Damien, where do you recommend they visit?

Fr. Gomes: On Oahu, I’d start with St. Patrick Church in Honolulu. It is operated by the Sacred Hearts fathers and has the archives of Fr. Damien. It has a full-time archivist, and people can make an appointment to see artifacts related to Fr. Damien. These include such things as vestments he used, his glasses and his pipe. It is our hope one day to open a museum dedicated to Fr. Damien and St. Marianne Cope at St. Augustine Church in Waikiki.

Another site to see in Honolulu is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, where Damien was ordained a priest shortly after arriving in Hawaii. It has some shrines to them, some artifacts and a gift shop.

And, of course, there is the Kalaupapa settlement on Molokai, where Damien served. There are fewer than a dozen residents remaining there today; in fact, there are more government employees living there than original residents.

It’s expensive to visit Molokai, perhaps $400 or $500 for a day trip by air, although if you charter a nine-person passenger plane it can reduce the cost. It is expensive for the state government to maintain the site, with such things as funding a post office and an airport, but the system will remain in place until the last resident dies. The idea is that the residents were once forced there, so they won’t be forced out.

[Editor’s note: The government lifted the quarantine on Molokai’s lepers in 1969. Some have chosen to remain, however, as it is the home they’d known for most of their lives. The remaining seven residents range in age from their 70s to age 91. Visitors can come to Molokai, but they must come at the invitation of a resident or staff member or through the resident-owned Damien Tours. All visitors must be flown in; the largest plane the airport can accommodate is a nine-seater.]

pastor of st. ann church in kaneohe
Fr. Damien with the Kalawao girls’ choir in the 1870s. (Image: Wikipedia)

If you don’t know anything about Damien and Marianne, however, there’s nothing to see on Molokai. The houses are very primitive, and the airport looks like a garage. But, if you’re familiar with their lives of these saints, all of a sudden the place comes to life. You can see the absolute misery that once existed there.

CWR: How bad were the conditions Fr. Damien encountered when he first went to Molokai?

Fr. Gomes: Fr. Damien arrived May 10, 1873. Interestingly enough, May 10 is his feast day even though Damien died on April 15, 1889. Normally a saint’s feast day is the day of his death.

The Kalaupapa settlement began less than a decade before, in 1865, for people afflicted with leprosy. By decree of the King and the Board of Health, those with the disease had to go and could not leave; they didn’t know if they’d ever see their loved ones again.

When Damien arrived he encountered the residents, a few huts but no police force. So, Damien came to a land in which there was no law, other than the law that might makes right. The stronger could overpower the weaker, abusing them physically and sexually and taking away their possessions. Abuse of women and children was common.

There were no consequences for bad behavior. How could you threaten them with jail? In their minds they already were in jail.

Damien’s contribution was to bring dignity and lawfulness to the people and direct them to God. One of the first things he established was the Christian Burial Association. He insisted that if a person’s body was treated with dignity at death, it would give honor to his life. Previously, there was no respect for the dead. Bodies might be left on the side of the road. Or, they would be buried in shallow graves, but the wild pigs would dig them up and eat them.

Damien wanted the people on Molokai to enjoy a good life. He came from a farming family, so he wanted livestock for the residents to raise, and seeds so they could plant crops. He begged for lumber and nails so he could build houses and a hospital, and enlarge the island’s church. His goal was to make the settlement self-sufficient.

He transformed the settlement, changing it from a place of despair to one that was tolerable, even pleasant.

CWR: Damien was also known for maintaining an intense prayer life, such as daily Mass and meditation and the rosary. He said the Eucharist made his life on Molokai bearable.

Fr. Gomes: Yes. One of our Sacred Heart priests, Fr. Vital Jourdain, wrote The Heart of Father Damien (The Bruce Publishing Company, 1955). He noted that from the minute Fr. Damien got up in the morning, he’d begin with morning prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Mass.

He’d then pray as he’d go about his daily duties. For example, he was burying people all the time. He would say the rosary while he was digging in the graveyard, or the Garden of the Dead, as he called it.

CWR: What were some of the most difficult challenges he faced?

Fr. Gomes: He experienced awful loneliness. He was always begging for another priest. The Sacred Hearts fathers would send him some, but they wouldn’t last long. Damien was a hard man to get along with. He was a determined man; some would say stubborn and cantankerous. He had a rough edge. It was his way or the highway. So, priests would come and minister, but get tired of living with Damien.

Being the only priest could make it difficult for Damien to have his confession heard. In one story, another priest was in a boat off the beach, but wouldn’t come on shore because of the leprosy. So, with Damien on the beach and the priest on the boat Damien shouted out his confession and received absolution. Damien and the priest spoke in French, however, so those around them couldn’t understand.

Also, at the time of his death, I think Damien felt rejected by his own congregation and the local Church. Because he had contracted leprosy, the local bishop told him he had to stay on Molokai.

CWR: What work are the Sacred Hearts fathers doing today on the Hawaiian Islands?

Fr. Gomes: We have 23 priests here, and we operate five parishes and a retirement home. One of our priests, Fr. Patrick, is in residence in Kalaupapa. He’s from Ireland and is in his late 70s. He’s happy there and likes working with the residents. He likes to talk to groups who visit, sharing the story of Fr. Damien.

CWR: How are the Sacred Hearts fathers doing for vocations?

Fr. Gomes: We’re doing well. We have 12 seminarians. Four are in the novitiate here in Kaneohe. Our graduate seminary program is in Fiji. We were in Berkeley, but the cost to educate a seminarian there was $50,000 annually vs. $12,000 in Fiji.

If you came to our seminary, I think you’d find our liturgies beautiful.

CWR: Do you have a devotion to St. Damien?

Fr. Gomes: Oh, yes. I was down for a year with colon cancer and had quadruple bypass surgery. I’m always asking Damien for help.

CWR: And you recommend others pray to him for help?

Fr. Gomes: Absolutely. The whole reason the Catholic Church has saints is so that they can be our intercessors or friends in heaven. They are also examples to us of holiness.

When Damien first stepped off the boat onto Hawaii in 1864, he was not a saint. He as a rough, young white man from Europe who thought he’d be the savior of the islands. In his first letter home, he writes of listening to the kanaka, or people of Hawaii, singing. He said that he couldn’t wait to be ordained so he could minister to the “savages” of the islands.

A few years later, writing as a priest getting used to the title “Father,” he refers to the same people as his sons and daughters. Later, he refers to them as his brothers and sisters in Christ. And, when he contracts leprosy, he says “we lepers.” He’s not over or smarter than the Hawaiians, but one with the people. You can see his evolution over a 25-year period, spiritually maturing along the way.

father damien
St. Marianne Cope stands beside Fr. Damien’s funeral bier. (Image: Wikipedia)

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About Jim Graves 219 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.


  1. If only the whole world could understand the Hawaiian philosophy for joy of life in the phrase ‘Mahalo ke Akua’ which St. Damian of Kaluapapa understood, (Thank you God for giving me life, thank you God for this beautiful day, thank you God for letting me live in your beautiful world, thank you God for my friends and family, thank you God for your Love for me which is greater than all my highs and lows…).

  2. Thank you for the interview. I recommend all Catholics familiarize themselves with the story of this amazing saint.

    I cannot recall the exact book, but one about his life affected me deeply. It was a fairly short biography which consisted of repeated attempts Joseph’s made in a lifelong struggle to get help for his lepers. They lived, merely subsisting, with little provision or means of sanitation, shelter, food, medicine and other necessities. The sense of ‘community’ was woefully lacking. Father begged his entire life for help from his Order, from government officials, from GOD in prayer, all seeming to no avail. Not relying on help which never came, but from the time he first put foot on the island, Fr. Damien worked his vigorous young body to its endurable limit, laying paths, building houses, and digging sanitation ditches. The rocks on the island were not easily navigated, but Father traveled them in order to visit the people and convert them to civilizing effects of Christian charity.

    Near the end of his life, a Hawaiin princess actually came to the island, and the community welcomed her with great hope and expectation that she would see and respond to their great distress. She was one of very few people who dared visit the woebegotten place, bringing some relief supplies. She departed with the promise to do much more. She left and nothing more.

    Only near the saint’s death did God answer his prayers. It seemed as if heaven finally opened and God’s providence began to arrive in a steady overwhelming flow.
    Damien cried tears of immense gratitude. St. Damien’s lepers gloried in the knowledge given them through Damien—that God truly did deeply love and care for them, except that now they were to lose their best friend. Funds and help in the way of priest recruits and many other types of workers arrived in wave after wave.

    Then Father Damien died.

  3. Fr Damien De Veuster whose Mass I offered this morning has been a favorite model of heroic charity that I’ve looked up to. When far lesser efforts seemed trying thought of his life at Molokai put things in perspective. His devotion to Christ was total. A true divinely inspired love for the most abject, virtually assured in time he would be like them. A saints saint.

  4. Father Herman Gomes is now Parochial Vicar at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Pearl City HI. He left Saint Ann, Kaneohe, four years ago when he was elected Provincial of the US Province of the Sacred Hearts congregation. Through all those changes he continues to speak about Father Damien, one of the best on the topic.

  5. How interesting to read Father Gomes describing how Father Daimen evolved in his view of the natives there, from seeing them as “savages” to accepting them as brothers and sisters. Todays society has not evolved at all, as the segment on the left will destroy a person’s life, or destroy the legacy of a historical figure long dead, based upon one error in judgement they may have committed. It is ignorant, and nothing short of disgusting, to see such self-righteous and judgmental mouthings given support by large chunks of society.How many of our historic heroes have been removed from sight, statuary and textbooks because someone with power proclaims them anathema for one incident or opinion, failing to see the great good they have otherwise accomplished? Be very wary of those trying to suppress your opinion, and FORCE you to hold theirs, and NEVER give them your vote.God bless Father Damien. I learned about him as a girl in Catholic grammar school and always admired his courage.

  6. Thank you for this interview and especially the sites we may visit to grow closer to this Saint. I recently directed a Zoom play for St. Damien’s feast day for the Benedict XVI Institute, gathering writing about the Saint from Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson and Aldyth Morris. Not sure if it’s appropriate to share with all your readership but I did want to share with your moderator and Mr. Graves. It is here: Warm regards,

  7. Inspiring life. He rendered humble service to leprosy affected fellow humans. Saint Damien of Molokai – Pray for us.

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