Observing Damien’s Feast Day
By Father Pat Killilea, St. Francis Church, Kalaupapa
She stepped off the plane with a broad smile on her lovely face and gave me a big squeeze as I welcomed her. The Miracle Girl, Audrey Toguchi, who credits the intercession of Father Damien with her miraculous cure from cancer, had come to Kalaupapa to join us in celebrating St. Damien’s feast day. Shortly thereafter, we climbed aboard my Paddy Wagon and rode out to St. Philomena in Kalawao to celebrate Mass in honor of St. Damien in the church he himself built. Led in song by the St, John’s choir, we had a beautiful celebration. Since I was the homilist on this occasion, I now offer my homily to you in lieu of further details.
Franciscus “Frans” de Veuster was a small farmer of modest means in the village of Tremeloo, Belgium. Ann Catherine Woulters was a devout catholic, a fiery mother, intimately involved in her religion and in bringing up her children in the faith. Of their subsequent marriage there would be born eight children, and the seventh was a boy named Joseph.
Joseph grew up doing many things typical of other youngsters, including occasional mischief and daredevil stuff, but as a young boy, he often went into the fields to play with the lambs and spend time with the shepherds. It is not surprising that he came to be known as the Little Shepherd.
“You may stay as long as your devotion dictates.” We now flash forward to that day and that moment when Joseph Damien de Veuster read these words in a letter from his Sacred Hearts religious superior informing him that he now had permission to stay on Molokai to continue the work he had already begun as gentle shepherd and defender of his flock.
Damien remained undaunted in the face of the obstacles. That faith which he himself had nurtured even in childhood, would now empower him to take on all the obstacles and all the roadblocks he encountered with a fierce courage and a determination to match.
When I came to Kalaupapa in 2006 to fill in for Father Joseph Hendriks, I was not too happy at first that I had to sleep in the church hall because the rectory floor was being tiled. Then I felt ashamed when I pictured Damien sleeping under a pandanus tree for several weeks when he first arrived, in the company of ants, roaches, centipedes, cats, dogs and other creatures. Damien could have slept in the little chapel here but he chose to sleep under that tree in solidarity with all of the unfortunate patients in a similar situation.
In all things, those afflicted with the terrible disease of leprosy came first for Damien. This was clear from how he treated them and fought for them. As Brother Dutton wrote, “He was a headstrong man, vehement and excitable in regard to matters that did not seem right to him and sometimes he said and did things that he afterwards regretted, but he always had a true desire to do right.” Damien was a human being, quick to smile and of pleasant disposition, a man of warm and tender heart. For Damien, Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life. Like Damien, may Jesus’ way always be our way. Amen.