Jef

Ninde was just a small rural settlement in Werchter (long before the village became a famous rock festival scene) which is currently part of Tremelo, with a stretch of more furtile soil along the Dijle which soothened the life of the farmers despite the harsh economic situation in 1840. There was one stone house owned by Frans De Veuster and his wife Anna Katrien who was known as Cato. Little Joseph, "Jef" as they said, was the 7th child out of 8 children, their fourth son.

Frans was a farmer and grain trader but when income was low he took his oldest sons to go to Austria where they got leeches to be sold to Belgian hospitals who still used them in medical therapies. When Jef is 7, tragedy struck as the youngest girl in the family, Melanie, dies from cholera.
The children of the family all went to the elementary school of the nearby village in Tremelo but from the age of 14 Jef starts helping at the family farm. He's a hard worker and enjoyed the outside work. 2 of his sister's joined a convent and his favourite brother August joined the order of the Holy Heart in Leuven. When his sister Euginie passes away in the convent, his other sister Pauline takes her place.

Frans envisioned Jef as his successor on the farm and decided to send his youngest son to a boarding school in Wallonia at the age of 17 in order to learn French. His study and the transition to this environment wasn't easy for him and he corresponded a lot with his brother in Leuven who invites him over the summer. His return to school wasn't very successful and he writes his brother to plea his entrance in the order of the Holy Heart. His parents weren't happy to loose yet another child to the religious world but they gave in and Jef joined the Holy Heart convent in Leuven as novice in the winter of 1859. His brother teaches him Latin and helps him to catch up the base education he needs to start his priest study. His strong perseverence was succesfull and he was sent to Paris to study Latin, Greek, French & theology and to finish his noviate. He takes his religious vows in 1861.

When his brother is too ill to leave on his intended missionary to Hawaii in 1963, Jef quickly convinces his hierarchy to send him instead his brother. After a quick visit to his parents to say good-bye, he boards a ship in Antwerp and travels to the other side of the world to set foot in a totally new world near Honolulu together with 15 fellow missionaries. The local French bisshop Maigret is rather annoyed that they've sent him fathers who hadn't finished his priest study yet and Jef receives the sacrament of priesthood in 1864.

For several years he works on the big island where he is responsible for a large parish. During this time he's confronted with leprocy and the social exclusion the patients had to deal with. He heard about the existance of the leprocy colony where patients were left behind to rot away.
When the bishop Maigret wants to send a volunteering priest to the island for a period of 3 months, the Belgian missionary volunteers right away. With the instructions to never touch anyone he sets foot on land where he's greeted by a group of deformed people. The smell of rotting flesh was all around.

Jef stays among those left without hope and learns to accept them as fellow people. Together with them he organises the small community of about 1000 (always changing) parishers, builds a church & a hospital & an orphanage, sets-up a graveyard, nurses the ill, baptises, marries and burries people, he organises a music band etc...He chooses to give everyone respect & hope despite their religion. He continously asks for funding at his clerical hierarchy while disobeying their rules and those of the administrative health council stubbornly until he was considered a real pain in the ass....probably quite correctly. But his work did get the attention of local media and he got support from Protestant & Anglican churches in the USA and UK....which made his relationship with his own order even harder.

In 1876 he notices the well-known leprocy symptoms on his own body. When he addressed his parish as usual "We lepers", it now had a new dimension. Since at that time leprocy was considered to be caused by syfillis, his illness feeded rumours about forbidden sexual contacts nicely spread by his opponents.
Until the end he continues to fight for his cause, while new lepers get simply dumped in the water in front of the shores of Molokai because "currents would be too strong" and when he requests confession from another priest at the end of his life, he needs to shout it from a little boat to another for everyone to hear as an ultimate humiliation.

But in the mean time his PR had done its work and his cause had caught the attention of the world press. When he died from leprocy in 1889 in Molokai among his community of lepers, his message and work is not forgotten.


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Joseph De Veuster, better known as father Damien, was canonized by the Vatican this morning and is now called Saint Damien from Molokai.

The catholic canonization process can be easily criticized for its weird "miracle" prerequisites, the hidden agenda's and potential hypocricy of the clerical hierarchy, the many unrecognized & forgotten saints, .... Father Damien would have probably hated the pomp & circumstance of such big catholic events, he would have hated labels, ... He'd gone mad when he knew parts of his body are now travelling the world as relics.

And yet it was a huge event for the Belgian/Hawaiian/global church today.

When you grow up in Belgium, you grow up with Father Damien. There's schools, hospitals, restaurants for the homeless, ... named after him. His life story is taught to us in schools. One of the biggest yearly recurring charity events Damiaanactie (against leprocy & TBC) (part of the global ILEP) inspires every year a lot of volunteers to set-up fundraising activities and gets yearly coverage in the news. Father Damien is the only statue of a non-American in the US Capitol.

Much to my surprise the (secular) press has covered massively this canonisation in Belgium with live blogging from the festivities in Tremolo last weekend and from Rome this weekend with special news editions, extra news emissions etc... Thousands of Belgians have travelled to Rome to be there.

"Damien inspires" say the banners hanging in most of the Belgian churches at the moment. I guess that's true. He does inspire us to overcome prejudices and labels we put on people, to reach out to the excluded, to never give up hope, to fight for the right cause, ... Pope John Paul II has canonized a record number of people because he wanted to give our modern generation examples in this world, people that inspire us.
And that's what today was all about. That's why he's a saint to us.

Comments

rozebril said…
Het is een verhaal dat op mij, als kind, altijd heel veel inderuk gemaakt heeft. Ik heb onze meisjes dan ook op een zo eenvoudige manier proberen uit te leggen wat hij gedaan heeft en ze waren even erg onder de indruk als ikzelf vroeger. Ze zijn niet gedoopt, maar sommige verhalen/gebeurtenissen wil ik ze toch echt wel meegeven en gelukkig wordt er in hun school ook de nodige aandacht aan besteed (zelfs in de kleuterklas). Zondag stond de heiligverklaring hier op de achtergrond op en ze hebben niet naar Ketnet gevraagd :-)
R. Duckie said…
Oh wow, I'd be curious to hear of the actual miracles he performed! What an amazing story
Goofball said…
@R. Duckie: a Hawaiian lady prayed to father Damien and got cured from cancer. She & her doctor took part in the ceremony at the vatican.
The Vatican requires such a miracle to be studied and documented and proofed & accepted by a research team in order to declare someone a saint. Pretty weird stuff.

I actually belief that you need a previous miracle in order to become "blessed" , which is one step before canonisation. Father Damien was declared blessed somewhere in the nineties.