Saint Damien of Molokai was born Joseph de Veuster. He was raised on a farm in Tremeloo, Belgium. His parents wanted him to study business. Out of respect for his parents he did for a short time study business at Braine-le-Comte, Belgium. Joseph came to the realization that business was not his calling. Joseph had an older brother named Auguste who was studying to become a Catholic priest. With his parents permission Joseph joined the Congregation of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. That group operated several monasteries in Europe including the one at Louvain, Belgium.
When the brothers joined the religious order they were given new religious names. Joseph’s older brother Auguste would be called Pamphile and Joseph would be called Damien after Saint Damien of Cilicia. It would be several years before Damien would become a Catholic priest, until then he would be called Brother Damien. When Brother Pamphile became Father Pamphile he was selected to become a Catholic missionary at far away Hawaii unfortunately before Father Pamphile was scheduled to depart he contracted Typhoid fever. He was too sick to travel. Brother Damien selflessly asked his brother if he could go in his place. Father Pamphile had no problem with the request and told his brother to ask the superior general of the order.
The leader of the religious order approved the request and on October 31, 1863 Brother Damien joined a group of Catholic missionaries that would sail half way around the world to carry the message of their religion to native Hawaiians. The Hawaii bound missionaries traveled onboard the RW Wood a large three-masted ship. The Hawaiian Missionaries boarded the ship at Bremerhaven. To get to Hawaii the ship would sail through the treacherous waters around Cape Horn. The ship was well provisioned; they made no port calls along the way. The RW Wood made the trip to Honolulu in 148 days.
The leader of the Catholics in Hawaii, Bishop Maigret met the new missionaries at the dock. Bishop Maigret led the missionaries through Honolulu to the Catholic Cathedral of our Lady of Peace. It is a massive structure made from large blocks of coral cut from a nearby reef. At the Cathedral a Mass was held to give thanks for a safe voyage. Other Catholic missionaries had not been so fortunate. One whole company of Catholic missionaries died when the ship they were on wrecked while trying to make its way around Cape Horn. Other Catholic missionaries sent to Hawaii were not allowed to land. The Kingdom had a law against idol worship. The King thought that the cross and the statues that are in the Catholic churches were idols.
Brother Damien still had to complete his training to become a Catholic priest he and two others were sent to the Ahuimanu mission school a few miles from Honolulu to complete their training. Just a few months after arriving at Honolulu brother Damien became father Damien when he was ordained at the Cathedral of our Lady of Peace in Honolulu May 21, 1864.
The Bishop assigned Father Damien to the Puna District on the Big Island of Hawaii. Father Damien was very handy he spent ten years on the Big Island and built as many churches in that time. It was customary for the Priests from surrounding parishes and other islands to get together to bless a new church when it was constructed. In the spring of 1873 father Damien traveled to Wailuku on the island of Maui to bless another church. Bishop Maigret met with the gathering of priests there to discuss a problem or perhaps an opportunity at the leper colony on the Island of Molokai.
The Bishop laid out the gruesome details, of the dreadful disease and the horrible conditions that existed at the leper colony. The year before a Catholic mission worker had completed construction of the Saint Philomena church at the leper colony. The Bishop wanted a volunteer, someone who would become Priest to the Lepers at Saint Philomena. Father Damien was the first to volunteer.
Father Damien spent his first night on Molokai May 10, 1873 that night for a bed he nestled between the roots of a Pandanus tree. Father Damien would spend the next sixteen years of his life tending to the physical and spiritual needs of the Lepers of Molokai. He became an advocate for the rights of those unfortunate souls. In the end he contracted the disease himself and died there. They buried him next to the Pandanus tree where he spent his first night.