T WAS AFTER living at the leper settlement for about ten years that Father Damien began to suspect that he was a leper. The doctors assured him that this was not the case. But he once scalded himself in his foot, and to his horror he felt no pain. Anaesthesia had begun, and soon other fatal signs appeared. One day he asked Dr. Arning, the great German doctor who was then resident in Molokai, to examine him carefully.
"I cannot bear to tell you," said Dr. Arning, "but what you say is true."
"It is no shock to me," said Damien, "for I have felt sure of it."
I may mention here that there are three kinds of leprosy. Father Damien suffered (as is often the case) both from the anaesthetic and the tubercular forms of the disease. "Whenever I preach to my people," he said, "I do not say 'my brethren,' as you do, but 'we lepers.' People pity me and think me unfortunate, but I think myself the happiest of missionaries."
Henceforth he came under the law of segregation, and journeys to the ether parts of the islands were forbidden. But he worked on with the same sturdy, cheerful fortitude, accepting the will of God with gladness, undaunted by the continual reminders of his coming fate, which met him in the poor creatures around him.
"I would not be cured," he said to me, "if the price of my cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work."
A lady wrote to him, "You have given up all earthly things to serve God here and to help others, and I believe you must have NOW joy that nothing can take from you and a great reward hereafter."
"Tell her," he said, with a quiet smile, "that it is true. I DO have that joy now."
He seldom talked of himself except in answer to questions, and he had always about him the simplicity of a great man--"clothed with humility."
My last letter from him is dated:
"KALAWAO, 28th February, 1889.
"My DEAR EDWARD CLIFFORD--Your sympathising letter of 24th gives me some relief in my rather distressed condition. I try my best to carry, without much complaining and in a practical way, for my poor soul's sanctification, the long-foreseen miseries of the disease, which, after all, is a providential agent to detach the heart from all earthly affection, and prompts much the desire of a Christian soul to be united--the sooner the better--with Him who is her only life.
"During your long travelling road homeward please do not forget the narrow road. We both have to walk carefully, so as to meet together at the home of our common and eternal Father. My kind regards and prayers and good wishes for all sympathising friends. Bon voyage, mon cher ami, et au revoir au ceil--Votus tuus,
About three weeks after writing this letter he felt sure that his end was near, and on the 28th March he took to his bed.
"You see my hands," he said. "All the wounds are healing and the crust is becoming black. You know that is a sign of death. Look at my eyes too. I have seen so many lepers die that I cannot be mistaken. Death is not far off. I should have liked to see the Bishop again, but le bon Dieu is calling me to keep Easter with Himself. God be blessed!
"How good He is to have preserved me long enough to have two priests by my side at my last moments, and also to have the good Sisters of Charity at the Leproserie. That has been my Nunc Dimittis. The work of the lepers is assured, and I am no longer necessary, and so will go up yonder."
Father Wendolen said, "When you are up above, father, you will not forget those you leave orphans behind you?"
"Oh no! If I have any credit with God, I will intercede for all in the Leproserie."
"And will you, like Elijah, leave me your mantle, my father, in order that I may have your great heart?"
"Why, what would you do with it?" said the dying martyr, "it is full of leprosy."
He rallied for a little while after this, and his watchers even had a little hope that his days might be lengthened. Father Conradi, Father Wendolen, and Brother Joseph were much in his company. Brother James was his constant nurse. The Sisters from Kalaupapa visited him often, and it is good to think that the sweet placid face and gentle voice of the Mother were near him in his last days. Everybody admired his wonderful patience. He who had been so ardent, so strong, and so playful, was now powerless on his couch. He lay on the ground on a wretched mattress like the poorest leper. They had the greatest difficulty in getting him to accept a bed. "And how poorly off he was; he who had spent so much money to relieve the lepers had so forgotten himself that he had none of the comforts and scarcely the necessaries of life." Sometimes he suffered intensely; sometimes he was partly unconscious. He said that he was continually conscious of two persons being present with him. One was at the head of his bed and one at his feet. But who they were he did not say. The terrible disease had concentrated itself in his mouth and throat. As he lay there in his tiny domicile, with the roar of the sea getting fainter to his poor diseased ears, and the kind face of Brother James becoming gradually indistinct before his failing eyes, did the thought come to him that after all his work was poor, and his life half a failure? Many whom he had hoped much of had disappointed him. Not much praise had reached him. The tide of affection and sympathy from England had cheered him, but England was so far off that it seemed almost like sympathy and affection from a star. Churches were built, schools and hospitals were in working order, but there was still much to be done. He was only forty-nine, and he was dying.
"Well! God's will be done. He knows best. My work, with all its faults and failures, is in His hands, and before Easter I shall see my Saviour."
The breathing grew more laboured, the leprous eyes were clouded, the once stalwart frame was fast becoming rigid. The sound of the passing bell was heard, and the wail of the wretched lepers pierced the air. ... The last flickering breath was breathed, and the soul of Joseph Damien de Veuster arose like a lark to God.
(Adapted from "Father Damien: A Journey from Cashmere to His Home in Hawaii," by Edward Clifford)