The Catholic saint who dedicated his life to a leprosy colony in Hawaii – and became an inspiration for HIV/AIDS care


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(THE CONVERSATION) On January 3, 1865, the Kingdom of Hawaii, then a sovereign state, enacted a “Law to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. Anyone suspected of having the ancient disease – which is mentioned as early as the Bible – would be inspected and, if found incurable, permanently exiled to a peninsula on the island of Molokai.

More than 8,000 people with leprosy fell victim to this policy of permanent segregation over the next century. Native Hawaiians have renamed leprosy “ma’i ho’oka’awale ‘ohana”: the disease that separates the family. Surrounded by steep cliffs and a treacherous ocean, the peninsula served as a natural prison and quickly gained a reputation as a de facto death sentence.

But in the Catholic Church, May 10 commemorates the day when a man moved voluntarily to Molokai: Father Damien. Born Jozef De Veuster in Belgium, he came to Hawaii as a young Catholic missionary and spent the last 16 years of his life living voluntarily in the leper colony, before contracting the disease himself and dying in 1889. .

Canonized in 2009, Father Damien was named patron saint of people with leprosy, or Hansen’s disease.

My research focuses on how Christian theology views socially stigmatized diseases, such as leprosy. Since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Damien has also become linked to the virus and has inspired many Catholic groups that care for patients. Her legacy illustrates the church’s complicated and often harmful views on HIV/AIDS – but has also helped people see those who suffer from stigmatized illnesses with more agency and dignity.

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Damien landed at Molokai on May 10, 1873. In a now famous letter to his brother, he wrote that he would become “a leper with lepers”, to “win everything for Christ”.

For more than 2,000 years, the “care” of people with leprosy has often been reduced to segregation. This was the case in Hawaii, where the Board of Health offered bonuses to those who reported suspected patients. The widespread belief that leprosy was an advanced stage of syphilis added an air of moral condemnation to the policy.

According to stories such as “Kaluapapa: A Collective Memory,” which documents the experiences of residents in the settlement, Damien used his carpentry skills to build two chapels, new shelters for residents, and a multitude of coffins. He provided rudimentary medical care, secured a supply of fresh water, and established an orphanage. At a time when fear of being near leprosy sufferers was the norm, the priest also ate with the inhabitants of the same pot and shared his pipe with them.

In early 1885 Damien began to show signs of having contracted leprosy, and in 1886 the priest officially became known as Colonial Admission #2886. Three years later, he succumbed to the disease.

patron saint

Damien’s ministry attracted an international audience, elevating him to something of a stardom, and his death elicited an immediate response. The future King of England, Edward VII, proposed erecting a monument to Damien on Molokai, establishing a leprosy ward at a medical institution in London, and funding leprosy research in India. Damien’s example inspired the creation of several other organizations dedicated to the study and treatment of leprosy, from the United States and Belgium to Congo and Korea.

In 1967, French journalist and humanitarian Raoul Follereau presented the pope with a petition signed by nearly 33,000 leprosy patients, calling for the beatification of Father Damien. In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Damien “venerable”, the first step towards canonization – which finally took place in 2009, under Pope Benedict XVI.

From leprosy to HIV/AIDS

But how did the patron saint of people living with leprosy informally become a patron saint of people living with HIV and AIDS? Given the traditional positions of the Catholic Church against homosexuality, condoms and extramarital sex, the notion may seem paradoxical.

Comparisons between the two diseases were made from the earliest days of the AIDS crisis: both were seen as mysterious and frightening and harshly stigmatized, with sufferers often seen as “dirty” or “sinful”. Many caregivers were even afraid to touch AIDS patients.

Invoking the example of Father Damien has become a means for religious organizations to legitimize their action in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the eyes of the Church and to underline their concern for the social stigmatization of patients – even if the Catholic Church she herself contributed to perpetuating this stigma, and no doubt the disease itself.

In 2003, for example, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, wrote that “the use of condoms goes against human dignity. Condoms turn the beautiful act of love into a selfish pursuit of pleasure – while rejecting responsibility. Condoms do not guarantee protection against HIV/AIDS. Condoms may even be one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Even in 2009, the year of Damien’s canonization, Pope Benedict noted that the AIDS epidemic “cannot be defeated by distributing condoms; on the contrary, they increase it” – an attitude out of touch with the views of most American Catholics, let alone medical science. The Pope’s statement caused such outrage that the Belgian Parliament even condemned it.

But many members of the Catholic Church have responded to the AIDS crisis with empathy. In 1985, for example – just a few years after the disease was identified – the Archdiocese of New York opened a treatment center at St. Clare’s Hospital, the state’s first specialized AIDS unit.

A number of ministries looked to Father Damien as inspiration for AIDS work, years before the church officially made him a saint. The oldest is probably Damien Ministries, founded in 1987 “to serve the poorest of the poor living with HIV and AIDS, inspired by the life of Blessed Father Damien”. The Washington DC-based ministry has taken a solidarity approach inspired by Damien’s ministry on Molokai, citing parallels between leprosy and HIV/AIDS.

Other organizations inspired by Damien include the Albany Damien Center, the Damien Center of Indiana—founded in collaboration between Catholics and Episcopalians—and St. Damien Hospital in Haiti.

Damien serves as what the historian of religion Robert Orsi calls an “articulatory pivot point”: a way people – HIV/AIDS patients, in this case – can use their faith to reshape their experience and gain agency, even though that same religion stigmatizes them as powerless “others.”

As a canonized saint, Damien is embraced by the highest levels of the church. Yet, as a man who embraced those rejected by the rest of society, reaching out to them and even dying for them, he also represents those on the margins.

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