apostle of lepers. Born in Belgium of a devout family, he entered the Congregation of the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and studied theology at Louvain. He was sent to Honolulu, where he built chapels in Hawaii, and on the neighbouring island of Molokai. At Molokai, he discovered a colony of lepers, numbering around 800, all of whom were placed in isolation and denied human contact. There was at the time no cure for leprosy. Moreover, their excesses of drink and sexual contact added to the perception of lepers as social outcasts. Devoted to them as people redeemed by Christ, Father Damien tried to improve their lot through appeals for funds from other missionary orders, appeals in The Times, and eventually from worldwide benefactors. He set up an orphanage, and built roads and a special hospital. From Hawaii came financial support and two schoolteachers. Father Damien himself lived with the lepers to show that they were humans in need of God's love.
However, he became somewhat autocratic in his dealings with his benefactors. After twelve years he was diagnosed with the disease, and his enemies asserted that this was due to sexual contact with leper women. He was forced to undergo unpleasant medical examinations, and was forbidden to leave the island. But public opinion changed: financial donations poured in from the United States and Britain, and more assistants arrived to help him. His leprosy worsened and he died at the age of forty-nine after fifteen years in the colony.
After his death, a local Protestant clergyman, the Reverend Hyde, attacked his achievements; an attack which was effectively refuted in an ‘open letter’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was beatified in 1995, and canonized by Benedict XVI in 2009. Feast: 10 May.
B.L.S. (Concise edn.) 167–8;R. L. Stevenson, Father Damien; an open letter to the Reverend Dr Hyde of Honolulu, 1890 (1916).