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Father Damien – Hawai`i’s First Saint

Father Damien in 1873
Father Damien in 1873


In 1873 Father Damien accepted a call to serve people who lived with Hansen’s Disease on an isolated peninsula called Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka`i. Father Damien spent the rest of his life serving St. Philomina Catholic Church, building houses, schools, and hospitals, caring for patients and dressing their wounds, making coffins, digging graves, sharing food and his pipe — and taking no particular precautions to preserve his health.

Kalaupapa Colony in 1905
Colony at Kalaupapa in 1905

Hansen’s Disease was detected in Hawai`i as early as the 1830s. Fearing further spread of the disease the 1864 Legislature passed “An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy” authorizing the Board of Health to establish a receiving hospital to examine suspected cases and an isolation settlement for those patients confirmed to have the disease.
The Kalihi Hospital and Detention Stations opened in 1865. The first group of patients arrived at Kalawao in 1866. In 1872 there were 385 residents

Father Damien arrived in Hawai`i from Belgium in 1865 and served on the Big Island. In 1873 he learned priests were needed at Kalaupapa. He and three other priests volunteered to go in succession. Damien arrived first and never left the island.

St. Philomena Catholic Church
St. Philomena Catholic Church

Damien was not the first to serve at Kalaupapa. There had been other priests, Mormon elders, and during the early years patients’ family and friends went as Kokua (helpers).

Damien lived with his flock. He conversed with them in Hawaiian. He constantly badgered the Kingdom of Hawai`i and the Catholic church for more resources.

Fr. Damien's Funeral Procession
Father Damien’s Funeral Procession

In 1886 Father Joseph Dutton arrived to assist Damien. Two years later Mother Marianne Cope came with two sisters from the Order of St. Francis. Their arrival was timely. Damien contracted leprosy and the disease took its course. On April 15, 1889 Father Damien died, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Philomina.

But Damien’s story wasn’t over. Both his body and spirit would travel beyond what Damien himself could have imagined.

Fr. Damien's Crypt at Leuven, Belgium
Father Damien’s Crypt at Leuven, Belgium

In 1936 Damien’s remains were transferred to Belgium. In 1995 the remains of Damien’s right hand came back to Hawai`i as a relic.

Fr. Damien's gravesite on Moloka`i
Father Damien’s gravesite on Moloka`i

In 1977 Damien began the path to sainthood when Pope Paul VI declared him “Venerable.” Pope John Paul II beatified Damien in 1995 and granted the Blessed Damien a Memorial Feast Day on May 10.

Fr. Damien's statue in Hawai`i
Father Damien’s Statue on Father Damien Day in Hawai`i


On October 11, 2009 Pope Benedict XVI declared Father Damien to be a Saint.


In Hawai`i Father Damien is celebrated on the day of this death, April 15. The statue by Marisol Exocobar is covered in lei. It is a day of remembrance.

St. Damien’s symbols are the tree and the dove. He is the spiritual patron of people living with HIV.


Father Damien of Molokai – Hawaii’s First Saint

by Heidi Chang, 2011



In 1969 Marisol Excobar’s statue of Father Damien was unveiled at the State Capital. There is a duplicate statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington D. C.

Illustrations from Wikimedia Commons.

Father Damien in 1873 when he went to Molokai. US Public Domain.

Kalaupapa Leper Colony in 1905. Public Domain.

St. Philomena Roman Catholic Church Molokai. Public Domain.

Father Damien’s Funeral Procession on Moloka`i. U.S. Public Domain.

Crypt of Father Damien in Leuven, Belgium. By FaceMePLS. Creative Commons Attribution.

Father Damien’s gravesite on Molokai`i. Public Domain.

Father Damien statue at Hawai`i State Capital Building covered in Lei for Father Damien Day. By Daniel Ramirez. Creative Commons Attribution.

Video: Father Damien of Molokai – Hawaii’s First Saint by Heidi Chang. 2011.

For More Information:
Father Damien. National Park Service.

About Hansen’s Disease. National Park Service.

Kerri A. Inglis. Ma`i Lepera: Disease and Displacement in Nineteenth-Century Hawai`i. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press. 2013.

Ralph S. Kuykendall. The Hawaiian Kingdom. Vol. 2. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai`i. 1978.


Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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