Letters Home

By Saint Damien of Molokai (1840-1889)

 

 

The following excerpts are taken from various letters sent from Jozef Damien de Veuster in the Hawaiian islands to his parents and siblings in Belgium, as translated anonymously in Life and Letters of Father Damien: The Apostle of the Lepers (London: The Catholic Truth Society, 1889).

 

 

 

Sandwich Isles, March, 1865.

 

My very dear parents -- It is a great happiness to me whenever I have an opportunity of sending you news of myself, of reminding you, my dear parents, that in the midst of the great Pacific...you have a son who loves you, a priest who prays for you, a missionary who passes his time seeking the lost sheep of our adorable Saviour. I have plenty of cares and troubles here.... Still I am very happy.

 

Our bishop has just made over to me a new parish, a little larger than that of Tremelo. It takes me quite a month to get round it. Here we cannot travel by rail, or by carriage, or on foot.... [W]e have got mules here and horses. I have just bought two -- a very good horse for one hundred franks and a mule for seventy-five -- in order to be able to travel about as much as I like. Sometimes I shall have to go by boat. The poor islanders rejoice when they see Kamiano and me coming. I like them immensely and would willingly give my life for them, like our divine Lord. So I do not spare myself, when it is a question of going to visit the sick or any other persons seven or eight leagues distant. There was a severe earthquake here this year, as is often the case.

 

The government is quite changed now. Whereas formerly heretics held all the power, now they are entirely excluded from it. I don't know yet if that will further the interests of religion or not....

 

Pray for the poor missioners, my dear parents, for we have many difficulties here. Good-bye, my dear parents. Give my kind love to all.... Do not be at all anxious about me, but pray that I may persevere....

 

 

 

Kohala, Hawaii, Sandwich Islands.

 

My very dear parents -- My mother's letter, which reached me in January, 1870, brought me the good news that, thanks be to God, all my family are very happy and enjoying good health. I was surprised to find that only my mother wrote, and there was not a single word from my father, until I learnt that he was suffering from fever. I had fever myself for several weeks, but now I am quite well, thank God.... Last year a priest came to assist me, so that my work is a little lighter now.

 

My companion and I live at opposite ends of our immense district; we each serve three churches four leagues distant from one another. We decorate our churches as well as we can. The Sisters have made us some flowers, and the tapers I make myself from the produce of my own beehives. From time to time, you see, I can allow myself the luxury of a little honey....

 

I am sorry to hear that war has broken out between France and Prussia. I hope Belgium at least will not be disturbed.

 

Here everything is quiet. The government is well-disposed towards Catholics, though the Protestants are in strong force....

 

Continue to pray for me, and live as good Christians....

 

 

 

Kohala, Hawaii, July 14, 1872.

 

My dear sister Pauline -- Three years now, and not a line from you. Where are you then, my dear sister? Are you off to Heaven already? Not so fast, if you please. A little more time is wanted to win that crown Take pity then on your poor brother, who by dint of being so long forgotten, will become a regular savage among savages. Well, I certainly love my savages, who will soon be more civilized than Europeans. They all here know how to read and write, and are quite well dressed on Sundays. I have in my own district, which contains three thousand souls, four chapels built of wood, very neat, where I say Mass in turn on Sundays. I endeavor to instruct my people as well as I can, especially the chief men, who take my place in my absence, hold meetings on Sundays, and preach. Visiting the sick is my chief daily task. We have to fight their doctors, who are generally nothing but sorcerers.... All diseases are attributed to mysterious causes.... Death carries off in these islands more in a year than are brought into life: so the native population is continually diminishing.... Our mission goes on fairly well; we are twenty-five priests in all, with churches everywhere. We do our best to hold our own against the Protestants. Our Sisters beat them with our girls' school; but as regards the education of boys they beat us. Our priestly duties occupy us too much for us to keep schools. There should be brothers for that duty. A few months back we had two terrible hurricanes. The first, in the couple of hours that it lasted, smashed a hundred houses. The second lasted three days. My chapels stood it well: two in the neighboring district were blown away. I play the carpenter when necessary, and have a good deal of work in painting and decorating my chapels. In general I have much bother and little consolation; and it is only by God's grace that I find my yoke sweet and my burden light. When I get a little unwell, I congratulate myself that the end is near: but I am content with my lot, only let perseverence crown my work. Let us be in the hands of God as tools in the hands of a skilful workman. Whether in life or death, we belong to Jesus.

 

Pray for me....

 

 

 

Molokai, November 25, 1873.

 

My dear brother -- God has deigned to choose your unworthy brother to assist the poor people attacked by that terrible malady, so often mentioned in the Gospel, leprosy. For the last ten years this plague has been spreading in the islands, and at last the government felt itself obliged to isolate those affected with it. Shut up in a corner of the island of Molokai, between inaccessible cliffs and the sea, these unfortunate creatures are condemned to perpetual exile. Out of the two thousand in all, who have been sent here, some eight hundred are still living, and among them is a certain number of Catholics. A priest was wanted; but here was a difficulty. For, as all communication was forbidden with the rest of the islands, a priest who should be placed here must consider himself shut up with the lepers for the rest of his life; and Mgr. Maigret, our Vicar-Apostolic, declared that he should not impose this sacrifice on any of us. So, remembering that on the day of my profession I had already put myself under a funeral pall, I offered myself to his Lordship to meet, if he thought it well, this second death. Consequently, on the 11th of last May, a steamer landed me here, together with a batch of fifty lepers, whom the authorities had collected in the island of Hawaii.

 

I found in my arrival a little chapel dedicated to St. Philomena, but that was all. No house to shelter me. I lived a long time under the shelter of a tree, not wishing to sleep under the same roof as the lepers. Later on, the whites of Honolulu having assisted me with their subscriptions, I was able to build myself a hut, sixteen feet long and ten wide, where I am now writing these lines. Well, I have been here six months, surrounded by lepers, and I have not caught the infection: I consider this shows the special protection of our good God, and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

 

Leprosy, as far as is known, is incurable: it seems to begin by a corruption of the blood. Discoloured patches appear on the skin, especially on the cheeks; and the parts affected lose their feeling. After a time, this discoloration covers the whole body; then ulcers begin to open, chiefly at the extremities. The flesh is eaten away, and gives out a fetid odour; even the breath of the leper becomes so foul that the air around is poisoned with it. I have had great difficulty in getting accustomed to such an atmosphere. One day, at the Sunday Mass, I found myself so stifled that I thought I must leave the altar to breathe a little of the outer air, but I restrained myself, thinking of our Lord when He commanded them to open the grave of Lazarus, notwithstanding Martha's word, jam foetet. Now my sense of smell does not cause me so much inconvenience, and I enter the huts of the lepers without difficulty. Sometimes, indeed, I still feel some repugnance when I have to hear the confessions of those near their end whose wounds are full of maggots. Often, also, I scarce know how to administer extreme unction, when both hands and feet are nothing but raw wounds.

 

This may give you some idea of my daily work. Picture to yourself a collection of huts with eight hundred lepers. No doctor; in fact, as there is no cure, there seems no place for a doctor’s skill. A white man who is a leper, and your humble servant, do all the doctoring work.

 

Every morning, then, after my Mass, which is always followed by an instruction, I go to visit the sick, half of whom are Catholics. On entering each hut, I begin by offering to hear their confession. Those who refuse this spiritual help, are not, therefore, refused temporal assistance, which is given to all without distinction. Consequently every one, with the exception of a very few bigoted heretics, look on me as a father. As for me, I make myself a leper with the lepers, to gain all to Jesus Christ. That is why, in preaching, I say, We lepers, not, My brethren, as in Europe....

 

I have baptized more than a hundred persons since my arrival. A good part of these have died with the white robe of baptismal grace. I have buried also a large number. The average of deaths is about one every day. Many are so destitute that there is nothing to defray their burial expenses. They are simply wrapt in a blanket. As far as my duties allow me time, I make coffins myself for these people.

 

Don't send me any more intentions for Masses. I have more than I can manage. It is well known that we do everything gratis. But our good Master knows how to repay us. Or rather He has already repaid us. If our Lord were to ask me: Quando misi vos sine sacculo et pera et calceamentis, nunquid aliquid defuit vobis? -- "When I sent you without purse, or scrip, or shoes, was anything wanting to you?" I should certainly have to reply, Nihil, Domine. In fact, after leaving all I had at Kohala for Father Fabian, I came here without anything. I have not a penny of income, yet nihil mihi deest, I want for nothing. I have even alms to give away. How is this to be explained? That is His secret, Who promised to give a hundred-fold to those who gave up all for Him....

 

St. Joseph is my procurator. Our Sisters of Honolulu send me clothes, and some charitable souls do the rest.

 

A few months back, the Minister of the Interior (Home Secretary) forbade me to set foot outside the leper settlement. I was then a State prisoner. To-day, a despatch of the French Consul announces my liberty. Blessed be God! I can now not only take care of my lepers, but labour also for the conversion of the rest of the island, in which there is not yet any other priest. I ought to have a companion, but where can I get one? Pray and get prayers that the Lord may bless my mission.

 

Your brother in the Sacred Hearts....

 

 

 

Kalawao, Molokai, January 31, 1880.

 

My dear brother -- Your kind letter of the 12th of November from Louvain reached me on the 2nd of January. I have now been nearly seven years among the lepers. During that long period I have had the opportunity of closely observing, and as it were touching with my hand, human misery under its most terrible aspect. Half the people are like living corpses, which the worms have already begun to devour, at first internally, afterwards externally, until the most loathsome wounds are formed, which very rarely heal.

 

The Hawaiian government still continue to collect and send us fresh lepers as they come across them and as far as their means allow.... The number of lepers exiled to Molokai is kept up to between seven and eight hundred. More cannot be taken for want of means.

 

Since I have been here I have buried from one hundred and ninety to two hundred every year, and still the number of living lepers is always over seven hundred. Last year death carried off an unusually large number of Christians. There are many empty places in the church, but in the cemetery there is hardly room left to dig the graves. I was quite vexed the other day to find they had begun to dig a grave just by the large cross, in the very spot which I had so long reserved for myself! I had to insist on the place being left vacant. The cemetery, church, and presbytery form one enclosure, thus at night-time I am the sole keeper of this garden of the dead, where my spiritual children lie at rest.

 

My greatest pleasure is to go there to say my beads and meditate on that unending happiness which so many of them are already enjoying. There, too, my thoughts dwell on the sufferings of Purgatory. I confess to you, my dear brother, the cemetery and the hospital, where the dying lie, are my best meditation books, as well for the benefit of my own soul as in view of preparing my instructions.

 

I preach every morning after Mass, and on Sundays at High Mass my children sing beautifully, almost like finished musicians. But recently, in consequence of death and of chest-diseases, I have lost all the best voices in my choir. I shall have great difficulty in getting it up again....

 

Our government doctor is due here this evening; it is he who has charge of the hospital. Last year I received from Tonquin, through the kindness of M. Lesserhens, the director of the Seminary for Foreign Missions in Paris, a large quantity of pills specially intended for the treatment of leprosy. The doctor, Father André, and I administered them, and though as yet we have not succeeded in effecting any complete cure, still a marked improvement has been the result. It is the same specific that is mentioned in several articles in the Catholic Missions, written by Father Stephens of Trinidad.... It is called Hoâng-nân....

 

 

 

Molokai, November 9, 1887.

 

My dear brother -- Having been informed that some of the Belgian papers had stated the death of your exiled bother, I suppose that is the reason why you do not write me any more. Unfortunately Almighty God has not yet called me out of this miserable world; and here I am nearly useless now, and I do not know for how many years more; yet I am in my daily occupations as usual, since it has pleased our divine Saviour to entrust to my care the spiritual welfare of the unfortunate lepers exiled at Molokai. As you know, a long time ago I myself have been chosen by divine Providence as a victim to this loathsome disease. I hope to be eternally thankful to God for this favour; as it seems to me that this disease may shorten a little, and even make more direct, my road to our dear fatherland. Such being my hope, I have accepted this malady as my special cross, which I try to carry, as Simon the Cyrenian, in the footsteps of our divine Master. Please help me with your good prayers to obtain persevering strength, till I happily arrive at the top of Calvary.

 

Though leprosy has a pretty strong hold on my body, and has already disfigured me somewhat, I continue to be robust and strong, and my terrible pains in the feet are gone. So far the disease has not yet distorted my hands, and I continue to say Mass every day. This privilege is my greatest consolation, for my own sake as well as for the benefit of my numerous fellow-sufferers, who every day Sunday fill pretty well my two churches, in both of which I permanently reserve the Blessed Sacament....

 

I still continue to be the only priest in Molokai. Father Columban Beissel, and quite lately Father Wendelin Mullers, are the only ones I have seen for sixteen months.... The joy and contentment of heart that the Sacred Hearts deluge me with, make me consider myself the happiest missioner in the world. Consequently the sacrifice of my health, which our good God has deigned to accept that He may render my ministry among the lepers more fruitful, appears after all but a slight affair, and even profitable for me. I venture to say, with a little perhaps of St. Paul's meaning, I am dead, and my life is hidden with Christ in God....

 

Tell our nieces to send me a long account about our family and our village; and give me yourself all the news about Louvain and the Congregation....

 

 

 

February 19, 1889.

 

My dear brother Pamphile -- Considering the nature of the disease from which, by the will of God I am suffering, I abstain from writing to you as before, as well as to the rest of my family. Still I am quite happy and contented, and though seriously ill, all I desire is the accomplishment of the holy will of God.

 

I have with me a priest from Liège, Father Conrady, and Father Wendelin is in another village. Besides these I have here two brothers, who help me in the care of a hundred orphans who are under my charge. The hospital contains more than a thousand lepers. We have also sisters here; three Franciscan nurses.

 

The English -- in London -- as well Protestants as Catholics, show the greatest sympathy toward myself and the work to which I am devoted.

 

Kindly remember me to all the fathers and brothers of Louvain, to Gérard, Léonce, and all the family. I am still able, but not without some difficulty, to stand every day at the altar, where I do not forget any of you. Do you, in return, pray and get prayers for me, who am being gently drawn towards the grave. May God strengten me, and give me the grace of perseverence and a happy death.

 

Your devoted brother,

 

Damien de Veuster.