Jozef De Veuster, the future Father Damiano SS.CC., was born in Tremelo, Belgium, on January 3, 1840 from a large family of farmer-merchants. His older brother entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and Jozef followed. At the beginning of 1859, he began his novitiate in Louvain, in the same convent as his brother. It was there that he took the name of Damien. In 1863, his brother fell ill as he was about to leave for the Hawaiian Islands. Since the journey was already prepared, Damien asked the Superior General for permission to leave in his place. Receiving permission, he embarked for Hawaii.
On March 19, 1864 he landed in Honolulu. On May 21, 1864 he was ordained a priest and immediately threw himself, body and soul, into the hard missionary life in two villages in Hawaii, the largest of the archipelago islands. In those years the governor of Hawaii, in order to stem the spread of leprosy, decided to deport to the nearby island of Molokai all those affected by the disease, for in those times it was still incurable. The fate of the sick worried the entire Catholic mission, and in particularly Bishop Monsignor Louis Maigret SS.CC., who spoke to his priests about it. Four brothers volunteered to take turns visiting and assisting the lonely lepers with their despair. Damien was the first to leave and on May 10, 1873 he arrived in Molokai.
Damiano conceived of his presence among the lepers as that of a father among his children, even though he knew what the daily visits to the sick would mean. Driven by the desire to alleviate the suffering of the lepers, Damiano became interested in the progress of science. He experimented on himself with new treatments that he also shared with the sick. Day after day he cured the sick, wrapped their horrible wounds, comforted the dying and buried in the cemetery—which he called "the garden of the dead"—those who had ended their agony.
Aware of the powerful impact of the press, he encouraged those who published books and articles on the Molokai lepers. From there, a great solidarity movement was born which allowed further improvements in the sick people’s fate. His familiarity with suffering and death had refined Father Damiano's sense of life. The peace and harmony that dwelt in his soul spread from around him. His faith, his optimism, and his availability touched hearts. All felt invited to share in his joy of living, to overcome the limits of misery and anguish in faith and, at the same time, those of the exile in which they live. "The hell of Molokai," made up of selfishness, despair and immorality was transformed into a community, thanks to Damiano, which surprised the government. Orphanages, churches, houses, public buildings: everything was achieved with the help of the more able. The hospital was enlarged, the port and the access roads were arranged, and at the same time a water conduit was built. Damiano opened a warehouse where the sick could get their supplies for free and exerted himself prodigiously for the cultivation of the land and of the flowers. He even organized a musical group to enliven the sick people's free time.
Thus, thanks to his presence and action, the lepers, abandoned to their fate, rediscovered the joy of being together. The gift of self, fidelity, and family values gained back all their worth. Life in common out of necessity or constraint gives way to respect for all human beings, even if horribly disfigured by leprosy. Damien allowed them to discover that in the eyes of God, every human being is infinitely precious because God loves them as a Father, and in Him, all recognize themselves as brothers and sisters. He too was infected with leprosy and died on April 15, 1889. His remains were repatriated in 1936 and deposited in the crypt of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart’s church in Louvain. Damien is universally recognized for having freely chosen to share his life with the lepers confined to the Kalaupapa peninsula in Molokai. His departure to the "cursed" island, the announcement of his illness in 1885 and his death profoundly affected his contemporaries of all denominations. John Paul II beatified him in Brussels in 1995, while Benedict XVI canonized him in St. Peter's Square on October 11, 2009.