Today the Church in the United States commemorates "the Apostle of the Lepers," Belgian-born Saint Damien de Veuster (1840–1889). Ordained a priest of the missionary Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1864, he served his entire priesthood in Hawaii. A year after Damien's initial assignment to Hawaii, the Kingdom of Hawaii established a leper colony on the island of Molokai where Hawaiians who contracted “Hansen’s Disease” (then thought to be highly contagious) were to be quarantined. In 1873, Father Damien went to Molokai as the leper colony’s pastor. In a letter to his brother back in Belgium, Damien wrote (paraphrasing St. Paul) “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” Indeed, 20 years later, Damien himself contracted leprosy. He died in 1889 - nursed by, among others, German-born, Franciscan Sister Marianne Cope (herself just recently canonized by Pope Benedict XVI). Beatified in Brussels by Pope John Paul II in 1995, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Damien achieved fame for his ministry in his own lifetime. The King of Hawaii honored him, and the attendant publicity produced international interest in and support for his mission. After his death, devotion to him spread among Catholics and admiration of him extended beyond religious boundary lines. He is one of four Catholic priests to be honored with a statue in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
Mahatma Gandhi is supposed to have said of Fr. Damien: “The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, counts by the thousands those who after the example of Fr. Damien have devoted themselves to the victims of leprosy. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.” More recently, at the time of St. Damien's canonization, President Obama said, "In our own time, as millions around the world suffer from disease, especially the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, we should draw on the example of Father Damien’s resolve in answering the urgent call to heal and care for the sick."
Humanitarian heroism may spring from diverse motivations, and much good is undoubtedly done in the world by people whose inspiration is not explicitly religious. But, as St. Damien’s words to his brother remind us, there can be no doubt what motivated him (and later religious missionaries in Molokai like Saint Marianne Cope) as well as countless other heroic practitioners of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, known and unknown, past and present.