Tomorrow, Pope Benedict XVI will be canonising Fr Damien de Veuster, known everywhere as the Leper Priest of Molokai.

Hawaii was not always the island paradise. In the mid-1800s, foreigners brought new diseases, including leprosy, which began to decimate the population. The government isolated those afflicted by leprosy to Molokai, choosing a small spit of land hemmed in by sheer cliffs and a dangerous sea.

The Bishop asked for volunteers from the members of the Sacred Hearts Congregation to minister to the lepers for four months at a time. The first to be sent was the Belgian Fr de Veuster, born January 3, 1840. Walking among the living dead, he was appalled to see grotesque disfigurement, dire poverty, destitution, and emotional pain. Without any farm implements and with debilitating physical deformities, they were expected to grow their own food, tilling the volcanic soil. The nurse showing Fr de Veuster the facilities available remarked, "We have no enemies here save scabies, vomit, fleas and lice."

Fr de Veuster celebrated his first Mass in the boiling hot chapel where he was confronted with all the physical unpleasantness of leprosy including the stench of rotting flesh. He had to turn away in order not to be sick by going to the open window, but the building was surrounded by those who could not get into the little church.

Fr de Veuster soon recognised that the exiles were hurt because he never touched anyone or smoked the communal pipe. If he really wanted to win their hearts he would have to accept them fully and risk infection. Once contracted, he knew he would die within three or four years. He soon began his sermons with the words, "We lepers..."

His ministry had four concerns:

1) The spiritual needs of the lepers. Facing death, it was easy for them to throw off all moral restraint and resort to drunkenness and sexual profligacy. He built chapels with his own hands while he faced undercover but prevailing witchcraft.

2) The exiles all needed medical care. Besides leprosy, the patients suffered from all kinds of secondary infections: lice and tick infestations, scabies, lung infections, ulcerated sores, diarrhea, coughs, etc. He helped to alleviate all these needs, often in the face of indifference, delays and even open opposition.

3) There were many orphans, prey to pimps or used as house slaves. In time he was caring for over a hundred orphan boys himself. Besides spiritual teaching, he involved them in his building projects.

4) He laboured to raise the living conditions of the lepers, helping them erect their cottages, bringing in an adequate water supply from a stream a long way off, insisting on better food and adequate clothing. He dug their graves and made their coffins. Fr de Veuster loved God and his whole life long was true to his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In December 1884, he noticed severe blisters on his feet without the presence of pain. He died of leprosy on April 15, 1889 after 16 years of undaunted dedication. No wonder that he has become the Patron of those afflicted with HIV and AIDS.

To help financially the lepers around the world - and there are 700,000 new cases every year! - in Malta there is the Order of Charity which has been working for the past 44 years. It is now being run by the Malta Grand Priory of the Order of St Lazarus, an ancient Order of Knights which dedicates its energy mainly for the cause of lepers. For more information write to tcutajar36@onvol.net.

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