The following was written by Joshua for Telling the Stories that Matter.
The kingdom of Hawaii had one particular advantage when it came to the spread of disease since they were a chain of islands they were quarantined from the rest of the world. Of course, this boon carried a danger with it: the inhabitants were especially susceptible to infection and disease when ships began bringing more and more merchants to the Hawaiian islands. The influx of commerce and foreign visitors was accompanied by crippling outbreaks of influenza that weakened and killed many. But whereas influenza was a fast killer and survivors were able to develop a fairly sufficient immunity in a little while, there was another disease that proved to be a slow and torturous killer. This killer was “Hansen’s Disease” but it is also known as leprosy and those who contracted it were known as lepers. It was hard to hide and soon the king–Kamehameha the Fifth–decided to quarantine those affected to protect the rest of his people. They were forcibly detained and sent to live on the island of Moloka’i at a place called Kalaupapa. Contrary to common assumptions, leprosy does not cause body parts to fall off and isn’t especially contagious but it does cause extensive nerve damage and can cause permanent damage to the skin, eyes, and lungs. The other–perhaps intentionally forgotten–damage it does is the relationships it crushes by fear of contagion and threat of quarantine.
Damien built a church with the help of the lepers there and organized them into a community around himself. He treated their pains and lesions with his own hands. He conducted services of worship. He heard confessions and gave spiritual direction to the willing. He built furniture and homes. He painted houses to give their place another measure of comfort. He built coffins, dug graves, and performed funerals. In short, he became a devoted member and leader in the community at Moloka’i. Because of his involvement, the people gathered around him and joined together as one people to share in their suffering and carry each other’s burdens. Because of his leadership they were able to work together to sow and reap crops each year and sustain themselves in their exile. One night he went to soak his feet in hot water–as he did every night after a hard day’s work–and was frightened to find that he could not feel the heat of the water. He had contracted the disease but he kept it as his secret for a little while he worked hard to prepare the citizens of his community to go on without him when he was forced to leave them by death. As he got more and more sick the Church sent three people to take over his duties and one to care for him as he died. They carried on his legacy of love and compassion while he slipped out of this life and into the arms of the Lord who had called him from before time began. Damien died on the fifteenth day of April in the year 1889 after serving the people the world wanted to forget for over sixteen years. He was buried where he belonged: Moloka’i.