Every age has its stories of heroic men and women whose faith challenges them to reach out in heroic love and service to alleviate the sufferings of their brothers and sisters.
This is the story of one such hero. He was born Joseph De Veuster, a Belgian farm boy. He is known now to all the world as Damien the Leper. His bronze figure graces the statuary hall in Washington, D.C.
Damien’s compassion for the lepers led him to spend sixteen years in the “living graveyard that was Molokai,” where he died at the age of forty-nine in service to people suffering from the terrible disease of leprosy.
Damien never lost sight of his life’s purpose, despite the many difficulties and sufferings he bore. It was only his faith that enabled him to endure the trials that his life’s work caused him.
We hope that you enjoy this story and find it a source of strength and encouragement.
The artifact presented here is known to be excessively rare given the contagious illness St. Damien contracted four years before his death. The fact that St. Damien was canonized on October 11, 2009, by Pope Benedict XVI, makes this letter, not only rare, but a sacred item of a canonized saint. It is an exceedingly rare and treasured part of the Papal Artifacts’ Collection.
The Stations of the Cross Will Be Received with Many Thanks: The Saint Damien of Molokai Letter
Damien, Father Joseph Damien de Veuster, a Belgian Catholic missionary to the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii, joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1840. He served as a missionary in the islands of Hawaii for several years before volunteering to serve the lepers on Molokai in 1865. For eleven years Damien ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of the colony, helping them to build cottages and roads. He contracted leprosy in 1884, dying from its ravages four years later.
This letter, known in the world of collecting, is an ALS: an autographed letter, signed, is the concluding page of a three page letter, signed, “J. Damien Deveuster.” There is no date but it is probably after he had contracted leprosy.
The letter was written to Edward Clifford, an accomplished artist from England. He visited Damien in December 1888 and rendered several sketches of the dying priest. The letter concerns the Stations of the Cross that were being given to the Catholic church on Molokai where Damien lived at the leper colony established there.
Contents of the Letter:
“On your arrival in Honolulu, you will first make acquaintance with the members of the Board of Health. And by gaining their Confidence you will easily obtain permission to come and pass here a few weeks. You do not need to hire a schooner in which to make your home. A special home for receiving visitors will be willingly put at your disposal and you will find our new doctor, Dr. Swift, a good-hearted Irishman!! When you write to our friend Chapman, please give him my thanks for his kindness towards me. Our workmen are now covering in our church. The Stations of the Cross will be received with many thanks. If you bring any value with you for the church, please deposit it at Bishopham to my credit or if I am no more on this world, at the Catholic Mission in Honolulu…with the hope of our soon meeting here, J. Damien Deveuster”.
In Word Shadows of the Great, Thomas Madigan writes, “Without doubt Damien wrote few letters and it is not unlikely that many of those which come from his pen during the leper colony days were destroyed by the recipient.” He adds that he had owned the only two know letters by Damien. I must agree that Damien can be considered excessively rare. I can find no record of sales, at any rate, in auction or dealer catalogs for the past ten years. This letter is used to illustrate Damien’s autograph in Ray Rawlin’s Stein and Day Book of World Autographs.
Here is a link to Papal Artifacts/Saints & Blesseds/Father Damien. Much more information is available about him. He is one of many saints & blesseds who are a part of the Collection.
St. Damien, pray for us!
This statue of Father Damien was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Hawaii in 1969.
Father Damien was born Joseph de Veuster in Tremelo, Belgium, on January 3, 1840. The son of well-to-do parents, he entered the Sacred Hearts Congregation at Louvain in January 1859 and five years later was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu.
While in Kohala, Father Damien wrote to the Father General that many of his parishioners had been shipped to a leper colony on Molokai and that he had “an undeniable feeling that soon I shall join them.” On May 10, 1873, Father Damien traveled with Bishop Maigret and a shipload of lepers to Molokai. After two days Damien was willing to devote the rest of his life to the leper settlement. The bishop replied that he could stay as long as his devotion dictated. Father Damien accomplished amazing feats while residing on Molokai. Six chapels were built by 1875. He constructed a home for boys and later a home for girls. He bandaged wounds, made coffins, dug graves, heard confessions, and said Mass every morning. In December 1884, Father Damien noticed severe blisters on his feet without the presence of pain. As he suspected, the disease was leprosy.
Father Damien died peacefully on April 15, 1889, on Molokai after 16 years of undaunted dedication.
On October 11, 2009, Father Damien was canonized (i.e., elevated to sainthood) by Pope Benedict XVI in a ceremony at the Vatican, thus becoming Saint Damien.
The bronze statue is based on photographs taken of Father Damien near the end of his life, with the scars of his disease visible on his face and his right arm in a sling beneath his cloak. His broad-brimmed hat was traditionally worn by missionaries. His right hand holds a cane.
Hawaii’s Statuary Hall Commission received offers from 66 artists to create the statue of Father Damien for the Capitol and selected seven to submit models. New York sculptor Marisol Escobar’s contemporary design was chosen over more classically styled representations. Aware of Damien’s fondness for carpentry as a recreation, she first created a full-size model in wood, her preferred medium. The plaster model that she then created for casting was broken on its voyage to the foundry in Viareggio, Italy; a second plaster model reached Italy but was then lost. Finally, a wax impression of the statue reached the foundry. The bronze statue was shipped to New York, where it lingered because of a longshoremen’s strike, so a second statue was sent directly to Washington, D.C.
This statue and that of King Kamehameha I, Hawaii’s other gift to the National Statuary Hall Collection, were unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda on April 15, 1969, 80 years after Father Damien’s death.
The statue’s design is typical of the sculptor’s work; Marisol Escobar is known for her portraits with faces, hands and feet attached to large blocks of wood. In this case in particular, it reflects her decision “to undertake the work directly and simply in much the same way Father Damien did his work.”