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minister to lepers
Joseph de Veuster was born at Tremeloo, Belgium, on January 3, 1840. His father, a small farmer, sent him to a college at Braine-le-Comte in preparation for a commercial profession, but Joseph chose instead to enter the novitiate of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary at Louvain, taking the name of Damien. He was admitted to the religious profession on October 7, 1860. Three years later, though still in minor orders, he was sent to the mission of the Hawaiian Islands, where he arrived on March 19, 1864. He was ordained a priest at Honolulu on May 24 of that same year, and was subsequently given charge of various districts on the island of Hawaii.
While ministering to the natives of Hawaii, Father Damien learned that many of his parishioners were being shipped to a leper colony on the island of Molokai, and that the Board of Health was unable to provide the unfortunates with either resident physicians or nurses. On May 10, 1873, Father Damien, at his own request and with the sanction of his bishop, arrived at the settlement as its resident priest. Setting aside any fear of contagion, Father Damien immediately set to work tending to his new flock. He touched the lepers, embraced and dined with them, and cleaned and bandaged their wounds and sores.
After twelve years of service (1885), Father Damien discovered that he had contracted the deadly disease, but he refused to give up his work. He finally succumbed on April 15, 1889.
In 1936, Father Damien's body was exhumed at the request of the Belgian government and returned to Louvain, where he was again laid to rest. In 1995, following beatification ceremonies in Belgium, a relic of Damien was returned to St. Philomena Church in Kalawao, Molokai, where it remains today. In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Father Damien to be venerable, the first of three steps that lead to sainthood. Pope John Paul II declared Damien blessed in 1995, the second step in that process.
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