Jun 1, 2024



The bishop appealed to local priests for volunteers to serve a remote leper colony in Hawaii. Four priests answered the call, including a Belgium priest who came to the Hawaiian Islands as a missionary in 1864. Joseph de Veuster (1840-1889) adopted the name Damien at his ordination in honor of an early Christian martyr. He was the first priest to go on a three-month assignment to this leprosy settlement and stayed another 16 years. Hansen’s disease (commonly known as leprosy) came to Hawaii with the arrival of immigrants in the mid-1800s. The native population had no immunity against the horrific disease and succumbed quickly. The government took drastic action by banishing anyone with the incurable disease, young and old alike, to a secluded peninsula surrounded by ocean and imposing mountain cliffs. Father Damien was repulsed by the deplorable living conditions and scant medical care yet also drawn to people in desperate need. He converted huts into homes, constructed a reservoir, nursed the sick, dug graves, and became guardians for orphaned children. Not that we should feel sorry for him. Shortly after his arrival, he wrote to his parents, “My greatest pleasure is to serve the Lord in his poor, sick children neglected by other people.” Eleven years after his arrival, Father Damien was diagnosed with leprosy. From that moment forward, he addressed his congregation in worship as “we lepers.” As he wrote to his brother, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” He succumbed to the disease five years later. He sensed the end was near in comments to a friend, “I have seen so many leper deaths that I cannot be mistaken. Death is not far off. I have visions of the good God calling me to celebrate Easter with him. May God be blessed for it.” He died on April 15, 1889, six days before Easter. Father Damien Day is celebrated in Hawaii on April 15, and the accompanying prayer is offered on that holiday in churches on the islands:

Almighty Father, we praise thy name for thy servant Damien, missionary to the lepers, and for all those who, following in the footsteps of thy beloved Son, have preached the good news of salvation to the despised and rejected of the earth, not counting the cost to themselves, and we pray that thy love for us may enkindle in our hearts an answering love for thee and our neighbors, and that thy grace may give us wisdom to see the opportunities thou gives us to serve thee, and the courage to grasp them, that in all things we may be made conformable unto the image of the same thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who now lives and reigns with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Jan de Volder, The Spirit of Father Damien.

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.