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Roxane B. Salonen, Published October 04 2013

Living Faith: Story of one who dined, died with lepers

My father believed stories were the way to his daughters’ hearts.

On our luckiest nights, he’d send my sister and me off to dreamland with a home-spun yarn, stoking our young imaginations with the likes of the Cyclops, narwhales and Jabberwocky.

Story still ranks high on my list as the best way to understand life. It also attracts and keeps me fastened to the life of faith.

Every faith tradition contains stories to help its fold understand their heritage and future, and in a very real way, these are the stories of our extended family.

Recently, while perusing a library outside a small prayer chapel, I discovered in a booklet a new “relative” who inspired me to want to serve God better.

Learning the subject was admired by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, I knew I’d stumbled upon someone remarkable.

As revealed in “Father Damien” by Glynn MacNiven-Johnston, Damien de Veuster was a Belgian who lived in the later part of the 19th century and spent his last years as a priest at a Hawaiian leper colony.

He left Europe for the islands at age 24, writing a final goodbye letter to his parents along the way as if expecting not to return. “Do not trouble yourselves in the least about us. We are in the hands of God.”

After being ordained and leading several different parishes in Hawaii, Damien accepted an opportunity to work with a quarantined community of lepers.

Damien took up the challenge readily, even knowing where it might lead.

“Remembering that on the day of my profession, I had already put myself under the funeral pall,” he wrote, “I offered to his lordship to meet, if he thought it well, this second death.”

His big and trusting faith surrendered all to God, and as I read on, my own faith began to seem very small.

By the time Damien, now 33, arrived at Molokai, he found 800 lepers inhabiting the isolated area. Many had constructed makeshift homes from branches covered with sugar-cane leaves or grass.

“Under these primitive roofs these unfortunate outcasts from society were living pell-mell without distinction of age or sex, old and new cases together, all virtual strangers to one another,” Damien wrote. “They passed their time playing cards, dancing the hula and drinking home-made alcohol.”

Initially, the smell of the lepers’ decaying flesh frequently sent him rushing outdoors to vomit. The first time he anointed a man’s feet, he found they were filled with maggots.

But in time, he became more accustomed to the conditions and endeared to the people, and they to him. For 16 years, he addressed both physical and spiritual needs of the women, men and children who’d basically been thrown off a ship near the island and left for dead.

Despite their dire prospects, Damien insisted there was still life within them and they were worthy of God’s love.

At 49, he finally succumbed to the disease himself.

“I have a poison in my body which threatens to spread through it,” he wrote his brother, who’d contracted tuberculosis, “but let’s not shout about it. Let’s pray for one another.”

Eventually, his face became covered in sores and one of his arms swelled beyond recognition. “It was so heavy it had to be carried in a sling,” writes MacNiven-Johnston.

“His nose collapsed which made wearing his glasses difficult, he had acute diarrhea and he felt desperately tired,” the author adds.

As he lay dying, his open wounds forming blackening crusts, Damien said, “God is calling me to spend Easter in heaven,” and breathed his last.

Certainly, we can’t all be like Damien, leaving our homelands to live and die as he did. But his story has made me wonder what chances I might be missing to be a saving grace to those who need me.

This brave young man, now a canonized saint, also has reminded me that every person is unrepeatable and worthy of love, and I’m as equipped as anyone to offer it.

And he’s shown me that being heroic makes for a worthy life, and every day we begin with a blank page and a chance to make our stories count.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com