Molokai, Hawaii: Shrine of St. Damien of Molokai
About Saint Damien of Molokai:
Fr. Damien was born 1840 in Tremeloo, Belgium. He was a poor student and had great difficulty learning Latin, so much so that there was doubt he could ever become a priest (how many times have we seen the lowly become saints?). He did succeed in getting through Seminary and joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts.
After the death of his brother (also a missionary), he volunteered for a mission to the Hawaiian Islands. Inexplicably, he was granted his wish, despite the doubts of some of his superiors.
In the early 1870’s leprosy had begun to spread among the native Hawaiians. Most probably, leprosy reached the islands from China by way of the whaling and other commercial vessels transiting the Pacific Ocean. Hawaiians, having been isolated for hundreds of years, had no natural immunological defense against the disease. Once established, it spread rapidly and infected all the islands.
There was no cure, and to avoid the spread of the disease, the patients were shipped to the island of Molokai and kept under isolation. Cut off from the world and the rest of society they lived in extremely poor conditions. There was no medical staff or facilities to help treat the disease and most died in deplorable conditions.
Father Damien arrived in Hawaii in 1873 and never left. Part of a team of four chaplains taking that assignment for three months each year, Father Damien soon volunteered to remain permanently, caring for the people’s physical, medical and spiritual needs. He helped to doctor their sores, say last rights and even dig their graves. In time, he became their most effective advocate to obtain promised government support. Up until then, the financially-strapped government provided almost no assistance.
Soon the settlement had new houses and a new church, school and orphanage. Morale improved considerably. In 1888, the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse led by Saint Marianne Cope, were given charge of the colony in Kalaupapa, taking care of the female patients with Hansen’s Disease. After his death, Saint Marianne Cope was successor of the Boys Home in Kalawao, Molokai.
The testimony of the life that Father Damien lived among the lepers of Molokai led to an intensive study of Hansen’s disease, eventually leading to a cure. As requested, he was buried in Kalaupapa, but in 1936, the Belgian government succeeded in having his body moved to Leuven, Belgium. His body is interred there.
Pope John Paul II beatified Damien in 1995, and part of Father Damien’s body (his hand) was returned to Hawaii after his beatification.
He was named a saint on Oct 11th 2009. His Feast Day is May 10th. The Hawaii State Capitol Building has a statue of Father Damien, and a replica is displayed in the United States Capitol.
There is a chapel dedicated to Saint Damien in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. and, of course, many parish churches throughout world named after him.
About the Shrine of Saint Damien of Molokai:
The U.S. National Park Service is in charge of the park, and within it you will find the first parish church where Father Damien served, Saint Philomena’s Catholic Church. Tours of the park will include the church. There is only one Mass each month here, on the first Sunday of the month at 9:00 a.m.
The other church here is Saint Francis Church. They have daily and weekend Masses. To contact Saint Francis Church:
Traveling to Molokai:
It is unfortunate that none of the major cruise lines visit the island, since Saint Damien had such an important influence here. Likewise, the ferry that used to run from Maui to Molokai no longer is in service, so booking a flight from Honolulu or Maui airports would be your best bet.
Molokai is the real Hawaii in the opinion of many….no hordes of tourists, very relaxed pace, not a lot of excitement…so it is not for everyone, but for those who want to enjoy a slower pace in a beautiful setting, you can’t beat Molokai.
Address: Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Kalaupapa, HI 96742
Tel: +1 (808)567-6238
Click here for the official website of Saint Francis Church in the Diocese of Honolulu
Click here for all the parishes in Hawaii associated with Saint Damien