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The Meaning of Father Damien

In September of 1881, while King Kalākaua of Hawaii was away on his world tour, his regent (and sister) Princess Liliʻuokalani visited the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai. Its administrator was a Belgian missionary, a Catholic priest named Father Damien De Veuster.

Liliʻuokalani had probably never seen a leper before. That’s the point of a leper colony: it shields the healthy from the suffering of the afflicted. Here on Molokai, however, the Princess was surrounded by six hundred of them. Lepers, you know, are like walking corpses. Their flesh falls off by the handful until they fall down dead.

Princess Liliʻuokalani was, quite literally, speechless. A royal minister in her entourage had to address the patients on her behalf. As soon as she returned to the capital of Honolulu, though, she named Father Damien to the Royal Order of Kalakaua. After succeeding her brother to the throne, she also became a champion of lepers in her own right, returning to Kalaupapa once more in 1884. Five years later, Father Damien himself succumbed to leprosy and died.

It was the end Father Damien had expected when he arrived at Molokai in 1873. When the local bishop presented the missionary to his new flock, he introduced himself as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.”

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