When Heroes Become Saints: A Lesson in Love from St. Damien de Veuster

By Laura Kizior

We all aspire to be heroes. But as Christians, our goal is so much more than being a hero in the eyes of the world. We strive to become saints—like St. Damien de Veuster—who build a culture of life in our society. St. Damien served the lepers of the Hawaiian Islands for 16 years, giving up his life and his health in order to bring comfort to the most hated and feared people in society.

Originally from Belgium, Fr. Damien was sent to the Hawaiian Islands as a missionary with the Sacred Heart fathers to bring the light of Christ to the Hawaiian people. During his work, Fr. Damien learned of the plight of the lepers and he begged his superiors to allow him to help the sufferers in the colony of Molokai.

In 1873, Fr. Damien arrived in Molokai with a letter from his superiors, urging him to stay on the island only as long as he felt called. Fr. Damien’s calling would claim his life.

Working among the despised

Leprosy is a debilitating and disfiguring disease that spread rapidly through the Hawaiian Islands during the 1800s. Unable to treat the disease, government authorities sent the afflicted to a desolate peninsula on the Island of Molokai where they lived in total isolation from the rest of society.

With little food, supplies, or medical care, the suffering lepers lost all hope and turned to vice as a way to assuage their pain.

It would have been sufficient for Fr. Damien to just help the lepers build homes and to restore a sense of morality to their society, but he went further. Fr. Damien aligned himself with them, often using the term “we lepers” to show a common brotherhood. He cared for both the spiritual and physical needs of the lepers and never shied away from treating them with respect and dignity.

Fr. Damien taught the lepers to have a sense of personal worth and to remember the inestimable value of the human person. Using the talents of the people in the leper colony, Fr. Damien formed a musical band and a building committee, held race competitions, and created a choir, restoring a sense of dignity to his congregation. Fr. Damien taught his flock to look beyond the deformity of their disease and to see themselves as God sees them—as beautiful reflections of Himself.

Is it enough to be a hero?

Fr. Damien became known all over the world as a hero for his valiant work in the leper colony of Molokai. But awards, titles, and honors meant nothing to him. Fr. Damien used every opportunity to help these people, even when it meant that he was falsely accused of selfishness by other missionaries in the islands.

Despite the success Fr. Damien achieved on Molokai, he faced many trials. After he announced to his superiors that he had contracted leprosy, he was forbidden from visiting his fellow missionaries in Honolulu.

Cast into complete isolation, Fr. Damien yearned for spiritual support, which he only received at the very end of his work. Despite his spiritual and physical suffering, Fr. Damien remained true to his mission and to the people whom he had come to serve by comforting those around him as he lay dying.

If we strive to be a hero and a saint like Fr. Damien, we must be willing to devote our energies and talents to serving others as well as be ready to give up our lives. Human beings are the most precious gift from God. There is nothing more heroic than to serve the most neglected people of society with a smile, but there is nothing more saintlike than to give up your life freely for those who could never repay you.

Saints go beyond exciting deeds and great accomplishments. The life of a saint is built upon the recognition that nothing in this world is meant to last forever and that eternal life is what matters most. St. Damien of Molokai was a hero for agreeing to work among the lepers on the miserable island of Molokai, but he was a saint for embracing his cross of suffering and dying in the service of those who needed him most.

This year, the Culture of Life Studies Program looks forward to producing Defend Life, a four-week unit study for students in 7th and 8th grade that teaches students to imitate the saints and heroes of the pro-life movement in order to build a culture of life in the world.

Which saints and heroes do you look to for encouragement in building a culture of life?

Laura Kizior is a content developer for American Life League’s Culture of Life Studies Program, which stresses the culture of life as an integral part of every academic discipline. CLSP is dedicated to helping students become effective communicators of the pro-life message. Sign up for our e-mail newsletter to see how we can help you foster a culture of life at home and in school.