Father Damien Day
This day of commemoration in Hawaii honors Father Damien, a Belgian and Catholic priest known for his missionary and charity work. He died on April 15, 1889, which is why he is remembered annually on the 15th.
Hawaiians celebrate this day by gathering at Father Damien’s statue at the Hawaiian Capitol. Observers hang lei around the statue’s neck, pray, and sing in his honor. Many schools hold educational events surrounding his life. A Feast Day was established to honor Father Damien on May 10, observed by the Roman Catholic Church. He is also awaiting sainthood.
About Father Damien
Father Damien was born as Jozef de Veuster in Belgium, adopting the name Damianus after joining the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a religious institute. This group sent him to Hawaii on missionary work in 1864.
During his work in churches on the islands of Oahu and Hawaii, he saw firsthand the effect of Hawaii’s public health problems. Many Hawaiians were growing sick and dying from diseases brought by visitors. These included influenza, syphilis, and leprosy, the latter of which became Damien’s chief concern. When the Hawaiian government began to quarantine sufferers of leprosy to rural settlements on the island of Molokai, Damien was one of four volunteers with his ministry to volunteer to work there. Once there, he built a church and started the Parish of Saint Philomena. Along with providing religious services, Father Damien helped build infrastructure and coffins, provided basic medical treatment, such as bandaging the lepers’ sores, and digging graves. Damien requested to stay in Molokai rather than rotate with the other four priests. His work resulted in a great community improvement for the leper colony, organizing productive farms and schools while improving the standard of living.
Despite 95% of the population being immune to leprosy, Father Damien contracted it in 1884 after burning his foot in hot water. He continued to live for a few years, hurrying to complete building and social programs before his death in 1889 at 49 years old. In 1938, his remains were shipped to Belgium at the government’s request. However, his right hand’s remains returned to his original grave on Molokai in 1995.
Father Damien’s renown began when during his lifetime. King David Kalakaua honored Damien with Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua. Princess Lydia Lili’uokalani traveled to the colony to bestow the award but was so saddened by the settlement to deliver her prepared speech. The princess went on to speak of Father Damien’s selflessness.