Damien of Molokai

A photograph of Father Damien taken shortly before his death
Religious Priest and Missionary
Born(1840-01-03)3 January 1840
Tremelo, Brabant, Belgium
Died15 April 1889(1889-04-15) (aged 49)
Kalaupapa, Molokaʻi, Hawaiʻi
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic Churches, some churches of Anglican Communion; individual Lutheran Churches
Beatified4 June 1995, Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Koekelberg), Brussels, by Pope John Paul II
Canonized11 October 2009, Vatican City, by Pope Benedict XVI
Major shrineLeuven, Belgium (bodily relics)
Molokaʻi, Hawaii (relics of his hand)
Feast10 May (Catholic Church; obligatory in Hawaii, option in the rest of the United States);[1] 15 April (Episcopal Church of the United States)
PatronagePeople with Leprosy

Signature of Father Damien

Father Damien or Saint Damien of Molokai SSCC or Saint Damien De Veuster (Dutch: Pater Damiaan or Heilige Damiaan van Molokai; 3 January 1840 – 15 April 1889),[2] born Jozef De Veuster, was a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium and member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary,[3] a missionary religious institute. He was recognized for his ministry, which he led from 1873 until his death in 1889, in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi to people with leprosy (Hansen's disease), who lived in government-mandated medical quarantine in a settlement on the Kalaupapa Peninsula of Molokaʻi.[4]

During this time, he taught the Catholic faith to the people of Hawaii. Father Damien also cared for the patients and established leaders within the community to build houses, schools, roads, hospitals, and churches. He dressed residents' ulcers, built a reservoir, made coffins, dug graves, shared pipes, and ate poi with them, providing both medical and emotional support.

After 11 years caring for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of those in the leper colony, Father Damien contracted leprosy. He continued with his work despite the infection but finally succumbed to the disease on 15 April 1889. Father Damien also had tuberculosis, which worsened his condition, but some believe the reason he volunteered in the first place was due to tuberculosis.[5]

Father Damien has been described as a "martyr of charity".[6] Damien De Veuster is venerated as a saint in the Catholic Church. In the Anglican Communion and other Christian denominations, Damien is considered the spiritual patron for leprosy and outcasts. Father Damien Day, 15 April, the day of his death, is also a minor statewide holiday in Hawaii. Father Damien is the patron saint of the Diocese of Honolulu and of Hawaii.

Father Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on 11 October 2009.[7][8] Libert H. Boeynaems, writing in the Catholic Encyclopedia, calls him "the Apostle of the Lepers."[9] Damien De Veuster's feast day is 10 May.

Early life

Father Damien was born Jozef ("Jef") De Veuster, the youngest of seven children and fourth son of the Flemish corn merchant Joannes Franciscus ("Frans") De Veuster and his wife Anne-Catherine ("Cato") Wouters in the village of Tremelo in Flemish Brabant in rural Belgium on 3 January 1840. His older sisters Eugénie and Pauline became nuns, and his older brother Auguste (Father Pamphile) joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus Fathers). Jozef was forced to quit school at age 13 to work on the family farm.[10] His father sent him to a college at Braine-le-Comte to prepare for a commercial profession, but as a result of a mission given by the Redemptorists in 1858, Joseph decided to pursue a religious vocation.[9]

Jozef entered the novitiate of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary at Louvain and took in religion the name of Damien, presumably after the first Saint Damien, a fourth-century physician and martyr.[11][12] He was admitted to the religious profession on 7 October 1860.

His superiors thought that he was not a good candidate for the priesthood because he lacked education. However, he was not considered unintelligent. Because he learned Latin well from his brother, his superiors decided to allow him to become a priest. During his religious studies, Damien prayed daily before a picture of St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, to be sent on a mission.[13][14] Three years later when his brother Father Pamphile (Auguste) could not travel to Hawaiʻi as a missionary because of illness, Damien was allowed to take his place.[15]

Mission in Hawaii

Father Damien in 1873 before he sailed for Hawaii

On 19 March 1864, Damien arrived at Honolulu Harbor on Oʻahu. He was ordained into the priesthood on 21 May 1864, at what is now the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace.[16]

In 1865, Damien was assigned to the Catholic Mission in North Kohala on the island of Hawaiʻi. While he was serving in several parishes on Oʻahu, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was struggling with a labor shortage and a public health crisis.[17] Many of the Native Hawaiian parishioners had high mortality rates due to infectious diseases such as leprosy (from which he later died), smallpox, cholera, influenza, syphilis, and whooping cough, brought to the Hawaiian Islands by foreign traders, sailors and immigrants. Thousands of Hawaiians died of such diseases, to which they had not acquired immunity.[18]

It is believed that Chinese workers carried leprosy (later known as Hansen's disease) to the islands in the 1830s and 1840s. At that time, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious and was incurable. In 1865, out of fear of this contagious disease, Hawaiian King Kamehameha V and the Hawaiian Legislature passed the "Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy." This law quarantined the lepers of Hawaii, requiring the most serious cases to be moved to a settlement colony of Kalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokaʻi. Later the settlement of Kalaupapa was developed. Kalawao County, where the two villages are located, is separated from the rest of Molokaʻi by a steep mountain ridge. From 1866 through 1969, about 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula for medical quarantine.[19]

The Royal Board of Health initially provided the quarantined people with food and other supplies, but it did not have the workforce and resources to offer proper health care.[9] According to documents of that time, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi did not intend for the settlements to be penal colonies. Still, the Kingdom did not provide enough resources to support them.[4] The Kingdom of Hawaii had planned for the lepers to be able to care for themselves and grow their crops. However, due to the effects of leprosy and the peninsula's local environmental conditions, this was impractical.

By 1868, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), "Drunken and lewd conduct prevailed. The easy-going, good-natured people seemed wholly changed."[20][21]

Mission on Molokai

While Bishop Louis Désiré Maigret, the vicar apostolic of the Honolulu diocese, believed that the lepers needed a Catholic priest to assist them, he realized that this assignment had high risk. He did not want to send any one person "in the name of obedience." After much prayer, four priests volunteered to go, among them Father Damien. The bishop planned for the volunteers to take turns in rotation assisting the inhabitants.[6]

On 10 May 1873, the first volunteer, Father Damien, arrived at the isolated settlement at Kalaupapa, where there were then 600 lepers,[9] and was presented by Bishop Louis Maigret. Damien worked with them to build a church and establish the Parish of Saint Philomena. In addition to serving as a priest, he dressed residents' ulcers, built a reservoir, built homes and furniture, made coffins, and dug graves.[11] Six months after his arrival at Kalawao, he wrote to his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: "...I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ."[citation needed]

During this time, Father Damien cared for the lepers and established leaders within the community to improve the state of living. Father Damien aided the colony by teaching, painting houses, organizing farms, and organizing the construction of chapels, roads, hospitals, and churches. He also dressed residents, dug graves, built coffins, ate food by hand with lepers, shared pipes with them, and lived with the lepers as equals. Father Damien also served as a priest during this time and spread the Catholic faith to the lepers; it is said that Father Damien told the lepers that despite what the outside world thought of them, they were always precious in the eyes of God.

Father Damien, seen here with the Kalawao Girls Choir during the 1870s.

Some historians believed that Father Damien was a catalyst for a turning point for the community. Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks were upgraded and improved as painted houses, working farms were organized, and schools were established. At his request and of the lepers, Father Damien remained on Molokaʻi.[4] Many such accounts, however, overlook the roles of superintendents who were Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian. Pennie Moblo states that until the late 20th century, most historical reports of Damien's ministry revealed biases of Europeans and Americans, and nearly completely discounted the roles of the native residents on Molokaʻi.[21] However, it could be asserted that Moblo does not account for the separation of civil authorities and religious authorities.[citation needed] As was customary in the time period, Father Damien's work was reported to Europeans and Americans in order to raise funds for the mission. How the colony was governed would be outside the scope of the written accounts and not important to raise funds for the charitable works of Father Damien.

Recognition during his lifetime

King David Kalākaua bestowed on Damien the honor of "Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua."[22] When Crown Princess Lydia Liliʻuokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she was reported as having been too distraught and heartbroken at the sight of the residents to read her speech. The princess shared her experience, acclaiming Damien's efforts.[23] Consequently, Damien became internationally known in the United States and Europe. American Protestants raised large sums of money for the missionary's work. The Church of England sent food, medicine, clothing, and supplies to the settlement. It is believed that Damien never wore the royal medal, although it was placed by his side during his funeral.

Illness and death

Father Damien on his deathbed
St. Marianne Cope standing beside Father Damien's funeral bier (image reversed)
The leprosy patients of Molokaʻi gathered around Father Damien's grave in mourning

Father Damien worked in Hawaii for 16 years, providing comfort to the lepers of Kalaupapa. In addition to giving the people faith, he built homes for them and he treated them with his medical expertise. He prayed at the cemetery of the deceased and he also comforted the dying at their bedsides.

In December 1884, while he was preparing to bathe, Damien inadvertently put his foot into scalding water, causing his skin to blister. He felt nothing and realized that he had contracted leprosy after working in the colony for 11 years.[4] This was a common way for people to discover that they had been infected with leprosy. Despite his illness, Damien worked even harder.[24]

In 1885, Masanao Goto, a Japanese leprologist, came to Honolulu and treated Damien. He believed that leprosy was caused by a diminution of the blood. His treatment consisted of nourishing foods, moderate exercise, frequent friction to the benumbed parts, special ointments, and medical baths. The treatments relieved some of the symptoms and they were very popular with the Hawaiian patients as a result. Damien had faith in the treatments and said that he only wanted to be treated by Goto,[25][26][27] who eventually became a good friend of Father Damien.[28]

Despite the fact that the illness was slowing his body down, Damien engaged in a flurry of activities during his last years. With his remaining time, he tried to advance and complete as many projects as possible. While he was continuing to spread the Catholic Faith and aid the lepers during their treatments, Damien completed several building projects and improved orphanages. Four volunteers arrived at Kalaupapa to help the ailing missionary: a Belgian priest, Louis Lambert Conrardy; a soldier, Joseph Dutton (an American Civil War veteran who left behind a marriage which had been broken by his alcoholism); a male nurse from Chicago, James Sinnett; and Mother (now Saint) Marianne Cope, who had been the head of the Franciscan-run St Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse, New York.[29] Conrardy took up Damien's pastoral duties. Cope organized a working hospital. Dutton attended to the construction and maintenance of the community's buildings. Sinnett nursed Damien during the last phases of his illness.

With an arm in a sling, with a foot in bandages, and with his leg dragging, Damien knew that his death was near. He was bedridden on 23 March 1889, and on 30 March, he made a general confession.[30] Damien died of leprosy at 8:00 a.m. on 15 April 1889, at the age of 49.[31] The next day, after the Mass was said by Father Moellers at St. Philomena's, the whole settlement followed the funeral cortège to the cemetery. Damien was laid to rest under the same pandanus tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokaʻi.[32]

In January 1936, at the request of King Leopold III of Belgium and the Belgian government, Damien's body was returned to his native land in Belgium. It was transported aboard the Belgian ship Mercator. Damien was buried in Leuven, the historic university city which is close to the village where he was born. After Damien's beatification in June 1995, the remains of his right hand were returned to Hawaii and re-interred in his original grave on Molokaʻi.[33][34]

Commentary after his death

Father Damien had become internationally known before his death, because he was seen as a symbolic Christian figure who spent his life caring for the afflicted natives. His superiors thought that Damien lacked education and finesse but they considered him to be "an earnest peasant hard at work in his own way for God."[35] News of his death on 15 April was quickly carried across the globe by the modern communications of the time, by steamship to Honolulu and California, telegraph to the East Coast of the United States, and cable to England, reaching London on 11 May.[36] Following an outpouring of praise for his work, other voices began to be heard in Hawaiʻi.

Representatives of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in Hawaii criticized his approach. Reverend Charles McEwen Hyde, a Presbyterian minister in Honolulu, wrote to his fellow pastor Reverend H. B. Gage of San Francisco in August. Hyde referred to Father Damien as "a coarse, dirty man," who contracted leprosy due to "carelessness."[37][38] Hyde said that Damien was mistakenly being given credit for reforms which had actually been implemented by the Board of Health. Without consulting Hyde, Gage had the letter published in a San Francisco newspaper, generating comment and controversy in the US and Hawaiʻi. The white people of the period consistently overlooked the role which had been played by the Hawaiians themselves, among whom were several who had prominent leadership positions on the island.[39]

Later in 1889, the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his family arrived in Hawaii for an extended stay. He had tuberculosis, a disease which was also considered incurable, and he was seeking some relief for it. Moved by Damien's story, he became interested in the priest's controversy and went to Molokaʻi for eight days and seven nights.[37] Stevenson wanted to learn more about Damien at the place where he had worked. He spoke with residents of various religious backgrounds in order to learn more about Damien's work. Based on his conversations and observations, he wrote an open letter to Hyde in which he addressed the minister's criticisms and he had it printed at his own expense. Stevenson's letter became the most famous account of Damien, featuring him in the role of a European who was aiding a benighted native people.[37][40]

In his "6,000-word polemic,"[40] Stevenson praised Damien extensively, writing to Hyde:

If that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage.[37]

Stevenson referred to his journal entries in his letter:

...I have set down these private passages, as you perceive, without correction; thanks to you, the public has them in their bluntness. They are almost a list of the man's faults, for it is rather these that I was seeking: with his virtues, with the heroic profile of his life, I and the world were already sufficiently acquainted. I was besides a little suspicious of Catholic testimony, in no ill sense, but merely because Damien’s admirers and disciples were the least likely to be critical. I know you will be more suspicious still, and the facts set down above were one and all collected from the lips of Protestants who had opposed the father in his life. Yet I am strangely deceived, or they build up the image of a man, with all his weakness, essentially heroic, and alive with rugged honesty, generosity, and mirth.[37]

Since then, historians and ethnologists have also studied Damien's work and residents' lives on Molokaʻi. For example, Pennie Moblo, in researching the myth and the controversy surrounding the priest, has concluded they did not develop from the religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but instead from changes in relationships on Hawaiʻi between and among the royalty, European-American planters, missionaries, and native Hawaiians in the years leading up to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the U.S. takeover.[17] During this period, Damien had J.K. Kahuila, a Hawaiian Protestant minister in his care, put in irons and deported to Oahu because he believed the man was too rebellious. Kahuila got a lawyer and demanded an investigation of Damien.[17] Moblo concludes that in most 19th- and 20th-century accounts, "the focus on Damien eclipses the active role played by Hawaiians and preserves a colonially biased history."[17]

Mahatma Gandhi said that Father Damien's work had inspired his social campaigns in India, leading to the independence of his people and the securing of aid for needy Indians. Gandhi was quoted in T.N. Jagadisan's 1965 publication Mahatma Gandhi Answers the Challenge of Leprosy:

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.[41]


Original grave of Father Damien next to the St. Philomena Roman Catholic Church in Kalawao, Kalaupapa Peninsula, Molokaʻi, Hawaii (21°10′37″N 156°56′53.3″W / 21.17694°N 156.948139°W / 21.17694; -156.948139)
Grave of Saint Damien in the crypt of the church of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts in Leuven, Belgium (50°52′33.4″N 004°41′54.1″E / 50.875944°N 4.698361°E / 50.875944; 4.698361)

In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Father Damien to be venerable. On 4 June 1995, Pope John Paul II beatified him, by which he would be known by the official spiritual title of Blessed. On 20 December 1999, Jorge Medina Estévez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, confirmed the November 1999 decision of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to include Blessed Damien in the national liturgical calendar with the rank of an optional memorial. Father Damien was canonized on 11 October 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI. His feast day is celebrated on 10 May. In Hawaii, it is celebrated on the day of his death, 15 April.

Prior to his beatification, two miracles were attributed to Father Damien's posthumous intercession. On 13 June 1992, Pope John Paul II approved the cure of a religious sister in France in 1895 as a miracle attributed to Venerable Damien's intercession. In that case, Sister Simplicia Hue began a novena to Father Damien as she lay dying of a lingering intestinal illness. It is stated that the pain and symptoms of the illness disappeared overnight.[42]

In the second case, Audrey Toguchi, a Hawaiian woman who suffered from a rare form of cancer, had remission after having prayed at the grave of Father Damien on Molokaʻi. There was no medical explanation, as her prognosis was terminal.[43][44] In 1997, Toguchi was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a cancer that arises in fat cells. She underwent surgery a year later and a tumor was removed, but the cancer metastasized to her lungs. Her physician, Dr. Walter Chang, told her, "Nobody has ever survived this cancer. It's going to take you."[43] Toguchi was still alive in 2016.[45]

In April 2008, the Holy See accepted the two cures as evidence of Father Damien's sanctity. On 2 June 2008, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted to recommend raising Father Damien of Molokaʻi to sainthood. The decree that officially notes and verifies the miracle needed for canonization was approved by Pope Benedict XVI and promulgated by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins on 3 July 2008, with the actual ceremony of beatification taking place in Rome and celebrations in Belgium and Hawaii.[46] On 21 February 2009, the Holy See announced that Father Damien would be canonized.[7] The ceremony of canonization took place in Rome on Sunday, 11 October 2009, in the presence of King Albert II of the Belgians and Queen Paola as well as the Belgian Prime Minister, Herman Van Rompuy, and several cabinet ministers,.[8][47] In Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama affirmed his deep admiration for St. Damien, saying that he gave voice to the voiceless and dignity to the sick.[48] Four other individuals were canonized with Father Damien that the same day: Zygmunt Szczęsny Feliński, Sister Jeanne Jugan, Father Francisco Coll Guitart and Rafael Arnáiz Barón.[49]

Damien is honored, together with Marianne Cope, with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on 15 April.[50]

In arts and media

This reredos of Father Damien in the Episcopal St. Thomas the Apostle Hollywood shows cross-denominational veneration of the priest.



Monuments and statues

Monument at St. Benedict's Catholic Church in Honaunau (Hawaii)

Legacy and honors

Statue outside the Hawaii State Capitol Building

In 2005, Damien was honored with the title of De Grootste Belg, chosen as "The Greatest Belgian" throughout that country's history, in polling conducted by the Flemish public broadcasting service, VRT.[13] He ranked third on Le plus grand Belge ("The Greatest Belgian") in a poll by the French-speaking public channel RTBF.

In 1952, the Picpus Fathers (SS .CC) opened the Damien Museum, (Dutch: Damiaanmuseum ) in Tremelo, Belgium, in the house where Damien was born and grew up. In 2017, the museum was completely renovated.

With his canonization highlighting his ministry to persons with leprosy, Father Damien's work has been cited as an example of how society should minister to HIV/AIDS patients.[60] On the occasion of Damien's canonization, President Barack Obama stated, "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."[61] Several clinics and centers nationwide catering to HIV/AIDS patients bear his name.[62] There is a chapel named for him and dedicated to people with HIV/AIDS, in St. Thomas the Apostle Hollywood, an Episcopal parish.[63][64]

The Damien The Leper Society is among charities named after him that work to treat and control leprosy. Damien House, Ireland, is a centre for "peace for families and individuals affected by bereavement, stress, violence, and other difficulties with particular attention to Northern Ireland".[65] Saint Damien Advocates is a religious freedom organization that says it wants to carry on Father Damien's work with orphans and others.[66][67]

Schools which are named after him include Damien High School in Southern California, Saint Damien Elementary School in Calgary, Canada, and Damien Memorial School in Hawaii.[68]

St. Damien of Molokaʻi Catholic Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, dedicated in 2010, is believed to have been the first Roman Catholic church in the continental United States to be named for Saint Damien after his canonization. A Traditional Latin Mass church, it is operated by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and was authorized in 2010 by Eusebius J. Beltran, Archbishop of Oklahoma City. Pontiac, Michigan (in the Catholic archdiocese of Detroit) has a St. Damien parish.[69]

Marianne of Molokaʻi was canonized in 2012.[70]

See also


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  50. ^ Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018. Church Publishing, Inc. 1 December 2019. ISBN 978-1-64065-234-7.
  51. ^ "Molokai, la isla maldita (Molokai, the cursed island, 1959)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 21 July 2010.
  52. ^ "Father Damien: The Leper Priest (1980) (TV)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 21 July 2010.
  53. ^ De Volder, Jan (2010). The Spirit of Father Damien: The Leper Priest-A Saint for Our Times. Ignatius Press. p. 73. ISBN 978-1-68149-557-6.
  54. ^ a b Welch, Rosalynde (21 April 2010). "The eighth circle of paradise: Father Damien of Molokai and Jonathan Napela in Kalaupapa". St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Religion blog. Retrieved 25 February 2013.
  55. ^ Farrow, John (1937). Damien the Leper. Camden, N.J.: Sheed and Ward. OCLC 8018072.
  56. ^ "'Damien the Leper' Purchased by RKO; Robert Sisk to Be the Producer – Joseph Calleia Has Been Assigned to Title Role". The New York Times. 17 May 1939. Retrieved 27 November 2015.
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  61. ^ Donadio, Rachel. "Benedict Canonizes 5 New Saints". The New York Times. 11 October 2009.
  62. ^ These include: Damien Ministries – Washington, D.C. Archived 8 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine; Damien Center – Central Indiana; Albany Damien Center – Albany, New York; Schenectady Damien Center – Schenectady New York Archived 11 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  63. ^ Damien Chapel Archived 14 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine – St. Thomas the Apostle Hollywood
  64. ^ "St. Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood » History". Archived from the original on 8 October 2020. Retrieved 3 August 2020.
  65. ^ "Damien House, Ireland" Archived 28 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  66. ^ "Home". Saintdamienadvocates.org. 8 June 2012. Archived from the original on 7 April 2014. Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  67. ^ "On Second Anniversary of the Affordable Care Act Passage, Hawaii Residents Join 140 Cities Across the Nation to Rally Against Its Impact on Religious Freedom". Hawaii Reporter. 23 March 2012. Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  68. ^ "St. Damien School, CCSD". Retrieved 25 October 2018.
  69. ^ "St. Damien of Molokai Parish, Pontiac MI". www.facebook.com. Retrieved 21 January 2016.
  70. ^ "Museum | St. Augustine by the Sea Parish". Staugustinebythesea.com. 23 April 2013. Archived from the original on 15 October 2013. Retrieved 15 April 2014.


Further reading

Media related to Father Damien at Wikimedia Commons