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This Priest Volunteered to Serve a Leper Colony

Read how Father Damien changed lives by selflessly volunteering to serve a leper colony.
It’s the end of a long day for Damien, a young man in Hawaii in 1844. He’s soaking his feet in a basin of scalding water, but he can’t feel anything. And that’s when he knows he has leprosy. That’s when he knows he will go from serving lepers in the colony of Moloka’i to becoming one.

Damien came to Moloka’i at the robust age of 33 to help the 700 people there living in quarantine. Before he left the healthy world, people told him to keep his distance. Don’t eat with them, they said — don’t get too close. But when he arrived, he saw these people wandering about like ghosts laden with blankets of despair.

Native Hawaiians had no natural immunity to any number of diseases carried by the traders and sailors who began arriving on their islands at the start of the 19th century. Illness fell upon these people like sparks on dry tinder. The most feared of all these diseases was leprosy — there was no known cure and it was thought to be highly contagious. Anyone with a trace of the disease was scooped up in the middle of the night and sent away to a secluded peninsula on Moloka’i, where they were never heard from again.

It was known as the “separating sickness.” These people — remember, they were spouses and parents and cousins and sons and daughters — they were dumped on the island to fend for themselves. They’d been torn from family and neighborhood. They knew they would die an ugly death. Some were abusing themselves or others. It was a living hell.

So Damien touched them. He visited every single one of the people living there. He had to start smoking tobacco to avoid gagging at the smell of their rotting flesh, but he bandaged their wounds and washed their crumbling bodies. He built roads, churches, orphanages, water systems, and simple homes to replace the ramshackle lean-tos they were using to keep the rain off their heads as they slept. The first thing he built when he arrived was a fence to keep the pigs and dogs out of the cemetery.

He shared life with them — he ate with them and prayed with them and buried them and even passed his pipe around. When he arrived, he didn’t know any of these lonely, ugly, sick people. He had no obligation to them beyond the pity called for by common human decency, but he loved them, and it changed everything.

And now, here at the end of his long day, with his unfeeling feet in a basin of steaming water, he learns that he will share their death as well. He knows the first thing stolen by the disease is sensation, but it will go on to leave disfigurement and worse. He sees it all with perfect clarity. It’s just a matter of time. He has a few years left.

So what does he do? He doubles down. He works harder to build more roads and homes. He’s on the clock now, and he has to do everything he can to keep this community going after he’s gone. This community is the one thing that’s healthy for these people. This community gives hope.

When he writes home, he says, “I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work. I am perfectly resigned to my lot. Do not feel sorry for me.”

This is a man whose life ran on a different motor. He was plugged into something that made him strong in weakness. He walked a path that led beyond death to new and abundant life. He knew how to find hope in despair.

Whatever was spinning inside Damien made him not afraid to touch people’s suffering, and even though he couldn’t cure their disease, he healed them. Maybe we can walk that path, too. Maybe we can touch people who suffer. Maybe we can search for what he found.

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