Latter-day Saint Life

What a Catholic Priest Can Teach Latter-day Saints About Ministering Like Jesus Christ


On one of my visits to the Hawaiian island of Moloka‘i to work on the book The Way of Aloha: Moloka‘i, I was invited to ride a mule down the largest sea cliffs in the world to visit the leper colony of Kalaupapa. From 1866 to 1969, more than 8,000 people diagnosed with leprosy were quarantined to Kalaupapa. The small peninsula of Kalaupapa on Moloka‘i was chosen because of its extreme isolation. The peninsula is surrounded by rough water on three sides and large sea cliffs on its fourth.

At the start of 1873, the Honolulu newspaper began reporting on some of the appalling circumstances and occurrences in the leper colony. The newspaper learned that 311 of the 797 people forcibly exiled to Kalaupapa had died in the deplorable conditions.

The Catholic bishop serving in Hawai‘i wanted to send a full-time priest to Kalaupapa. However, he didn’t feel good about assigning a priest to the leper colony, since he knew such an assignment would be a death sentence. The bishop decided that during one of his meetings with the priests he would ask for a volunteer to serve as the full-time priest of the Moloka‘i leper colony.

The moment Father Damien heard the bishop’s request, and before any of the other priests could speak, he burst out with, “I want to go!” The bishop smiled, gave him an affectionate hug, and agreed that he should go.[1]

On May 10, 1873, Father Damien, 50 lepers, and some cattle rode a steamer to the secluded settlements on Moloka‘i. Father Damien began his ministry to 816 lepers at the age of 33.

 When he arrived on Moloka‘i, he had no home, but he soon learned that having no home was the daily reality of many in the settlement. He refused to sleep indoors until every patient had decent shelter. Night after night, Father Damien curled up to sleep under a tree beside the tiny St. Philomena Church.

Father Damien made many petitions for wood to build the many needed homes. As the wood arrived, he began building homes and moving those who slept outside, exposed to the wind and rain, into the newly built structures. It wasn’t until after everyone in the settlement had a home that he finally built himself a small, 16-foot-by-10-foot house.

Ministering Principle #1: Christlike ministers volunteer to serve.

A terrible tragedy occurred in the colony in 1881. The Warwick, the ship that usually transported leprosy patients to Moloka‘i, was bringing 22 people to Kalawao. Father Damien and several residents stood on the beach to greet them. The Warwick couldn’t anchor due to stormy weather. The Kalawao residents attempted to bring whaleboats out to meet the Warwick, but the surf pounded them back to land. The captain of the Warwick ordered the patients thrown overboard, forcing them to attempt to swim ashore in the turbulent water.

The residents and Father Damien rushed into the roaring surf to save the men, women, and children, who were struggling desperately for their lives in the waves. All 22 were pulled from the ocean, but two of the patients had taken in enough water that they were no longer breathing. They did all they could to revive these two patients, but to no avail. One of the patients died, cradled in the loving arms of Father Damien as he prayed and cried.[2]

The Warwick captain saw the leprosy patients as worthless cargo he was delivering. Whether they died at sea or at the settlement didn’t matter to him. Father Damien saw past the disfigured faces and decaying bodies and saw a child of God with infinite worth and potential. Father Damien looked at those suffering from leprosy with the loving eyes of Jesus.

Ministering Principle #2: A Christlike minister sees others with the loving eyes of Jesus.

Father Damien’s superiors gave him clear instructions before he left for Moloka‘i. He was told, “Do not touch them. Do not allow them to touch you. Do not eat with them.”[3] Father Damien learned from his first day on Moloka‘i that this would be impossible. Despite his aversion to the wounds and the putrid smells, he blessed the dying, he embraced the sick, and he ate with them from the same pot. Loving them meant letting go of an attitude of distance and instead being physically close to them.[4]

A visitor to Kalawao who accompanied Father Damien on his daily visits recorded this account:

“Father Damien entered the hut to find two lepers lying on filth-encrusted mats, their bodies—such as was left of them—covered with blood and pus and with maggots swarming over their decaying flesh. The stench was almost tangible. He knelt beside them, washed and bandaged their sores, and comforted them with his words. He pulled biscuits and candy from his pocket for them. Father Damien bandaged the most revolting sores as if he were handling lovely flowers.”[5]

The Lord Jesus Christ frequently encountered those suffering from leprosy during His mortal ministry. Christ didn’t send these people away but instead brought them close. Jesus went out of His way to touch those suffering from leprosy. He touched them with hands filled with compassion, love, friendship, and healing. Father Damien did likewise.

Ministering Principle #3: Christlike ministers are filled with compassion and are close to those they serve.

Journal entries like this one were common for Father Damien: “I found one of my orphan girls dying. She had barely finished saying her prayers when she gave up her soul to the Lord. I made her coffin myself and dug her grave. After the funeral Mass this morning, I was informed of the death of two more of my Christians. That makes three burials today.”[6] Death was a frequent occurrence with approximately 200 deaths in the colony each year.

Father Damien made sure there was a proper funeral service and burial for each person, holding multiple funerals each week. A missionary visiting Kalawao shared that while he was visiting, he was in the church alone when he heard music in the distance. As it grew nearer, he heard the resounding boom of a big drum, the rattle of kettledrums, and the sound of woodwind and brass. Father Damien, the coffin, and a large procession of people poured into the church.

After the service, several women served as pallbearers. Two columns of women and girls followed the coffin. They were followed by the band and a large group of men and boys. The band played along the way and continued to play until the burial was complete. The missionary watched in awe at the care, love, and attention to detail during the funeral and burial. After the burial, the missionary asked Father Damien, “Are all your funerals like this?” Father Damien answered, “Always.”[7] With Father Damien, there were no mass funerals and no mass burials. The funerals and burials were done one by one.

The phrase “one by one” is found throughout the scriptures when describing the Lord’s ministry. There is no mass ministry or ministering. When Christ appeared to those in America following His resurrection, the multitude went forth one by one to feel the prints of the nails in His hands and in His feet.[8] After teaching the people, Jesus healed the sick one by one and requested that the children be brought to Him. Jesus “took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them.”[9] After Jesus instituted the sacrament, “he touched with his hands the disciples whom he had chosen, one by one, even until he had touched them all.”[10]

Ministering Principle #4: Ministering is done one by one.

Several pastors wrote negative pieces on Father Damien to try and tarnish his good name. Whenever someone goes about doing good, the devil will work to tear them down. Satan will use the universal sins of pride and envy to get people to spread rumors and lies. One of the pastors wrote that Father Damien was a dirty man, headstrong, and bigoted. In addition, he wrote that Father Damien was an impure man who had contracted leprosy because of sexual relationships with women in the settlement.

After hearing the claims by the pastor, a reporter went to Moloka‘i to investigate. He interviewed many people in the settlements and quickly found that Father Damien’s actions bore witness of his goodness. His love and positive influence were immense. The reporter not only found no evidence to support the alleged accusations of the pastor, but when the reporter asked Father Damien to comment on the slanderous accusations made by the pastor, Father Damien simply replied, “I forgive him wholeheartedly.”[11]

As President Gordon B. Hinckley taught, “A spirit of forgiveness and an attitude of love and compassion toward those who may have wronged us is the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[12]

Ministering Principle #5: A Christlike minister is quick to forgive.

Near the end of Father Damien’s life an artist from England, Edward Clifford, came to paint a portrait of Father Damien. The painter stayed in the guesthouse near the Church of Saint Philomena. He had prepared himself for a stay in a wretched place of disease and devastation but was moved by the cheerfulness and joy of living he experienced while visiting Moloka‘i. While the artist painted at Father Damien’s home, many visitors came to see the progress of his paintings. The painter was struck by the happiness of the visitors. He was often surrounded by lively conversations and joyful laughter. An often-overlooked principle of ministering is laughter. Father Damien’s home was filled with laughter.

Ministering Principle #6: A Christlike minister should live with joy and laugh often.

Princess Lili‘uokalani, who later became queen of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, visited Kalaupapa in 1881. As Princess Lili‘uokalani came ashore, she was welcomed and greeted with a warm Aloha by 800 patients, dressed in their Sunday best. Father Damien accompanied the princess over the dusty sand roads. The princess toured the village, entering some of the neat, tiny white houses and visiting the boys’ and girls’ orphanages as well as the Protestant and the Catholic churches. Father Damien didn’t want the princess to have to visit the hospital, but she insisted on going. She wasn’t prepared for the sight of the swollen and mutilated faces of the lepers, looking at her from their small mats on the wooden floor. The princess exchanged smiles with a patient who only had one eye and had swollen earlobes that extended to his shoulders. The princess’ eyes filled with tears as she spoke with a severely deformed and crippled girl.

Just prior to Princess Lili‘uokalani’s departure, the girls’ choir sang to her. They had prepared for weeks, excited for the princess’ visit. When the girls finished, they looked toward the princess for her words of farewell.

The princess rose and told the patients how proud she was of the courageous way they not only dealt with their illness but also with being separated from their loved ones. Tears rolled down her cheeks and she couldn’t speak for several minutes. After regaining her composure, she promised that the Kingdom of Hawai‘i would do all it could to improve the living conditions in the colony.[13]

The princess was again brought to tears as she watched those who had come with her on the steamer say goodbye to the loved ones they had come to visit. One mother cried as she hugged her badly disfigured child who had been exiled for three years. She knew she would never see him again. This mother stood on the steamer’s deck, watching her son blow kisses to her until she was out of sight.[14]

When Lili‘uokalani returned to Honolulu she reported her experience. The patients and Father Damien made a deep impression on her. She praised the efforts of the energetic Catholic priest to improve the lot of all of the exiles regardless of their religious convictions. The princess proposed Father Damien be honored with the title of Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua, the highest honor in the kingdom.

The royal family asked Bishop Hermann Koeckemann to personally deliver to Father Damien the medal, accompanied by a letter from Princess Lili‘uokalani. The entire colony gathered for the presentation ceremony, which included a large feast of roast pork, fresh fruit, and poi.

While Father Damien was grateful for the support of the royal family, he wasn’t concerned with titles and honors. In fact, he never wore his medal. At one point, a writer came to visit Father Damien and asked to see the medal. Father Damien declined, but the writer persisted and after several requests, Father Damien reluctantly retrieved the award for him to view. When Father Damien handed the writer the beautiful Moroccan case that contained the medal, the case was covered in a thick layer of dust. The writer clearly placed more value on this award than the man who had earned it.

Ministering Principle #7: A Christlike minister helps all of God’s children and is humble, with an eye single to the glory of God.

In the early 1880s, Father Damien suspected that he had contracted leprosy, but it wasn’t until December 1884 that he knew this with confidence. After spending the evening making visits to homes throughout the settlement, he returned home feeling cold. He began preparing a basin of boiling water so he would be able to soak his feet in warm water before going to bed. Although he had a pitcher of cold water nearby that he intended to combine with the boiling water, he forgot to add the cold water to the mix.

As he submerged his feet into the boiling water, he noticed they were turning bright red, so he quickly pulled them from the water. He watched as blisters began to form on his feet and yet he felt no pain. There was no longer any doubt in his mind, for one of the sure signs of leprosy is the loss of feeling in your feet.

In his first sermon on Moloka‘i, Father Damien began with the phrase “We lepers.” He used this phrase repeatedly throughout his sermons during the next 16 years. On the Sunday morning following his incident with the boiling water, Father Damien again began his sermon with the phrase “We lepers,” but this time the way he said, “We lepers,” was different. The congregation understood that their beloved father and friend had contracted this terrible disease. His friends began to weep for him, for they knew intimately the pain and suffering he would have to endure.[15]

Father Damien continued to work and serve his beloved friends, despite his advancing symptoms. His ears became extremely swollen. His face, neck and hands were covered with tumors and swellings of all kinds. By 1888, Father Damien’s health was rapidly deteriorating. On the 15th of October, Father Damien fell at the altar during High Mass. The debilitating effects of leprosy were taking their toll. Although Father Damien’s body was plagued with many aliments, his pleasant mood and cheer remained. He continued taking care of the sick as if he were not sick. One visitor was surprised to find the dying Father Damien on the roof of the Church of Saint Philomena, coordinating the reconstruction work on the building and giving good-humored orders to those helping.[16]

Father Damien was confined to his bed from March 28, 1889 until his death. Mother Marianne, Sisters Leopoldina and Vincentia, the nuns who had taken over care of the girls’ orphanage for Father Damien, came with a group of orphan girls to visit Father Damien on his deathbed. At the conclusion of their visit, Father Damien said to his girls, “I shall die soon, my children, but you will not be left alone. These sisters will care for you and you are now going with them to Kalaupapa.” The girls sobbed as if their hearts would break. All but two went with the sisters. These two little girls knelt and clutched Father Damien’s legs, crying, “Father, we are going to stay with you until you die.” They were allowed to remain, and they stayed with him until he went to heaven.[17] Father Damien gave them the gifts of love and friendship, and in return he received great love and friendship. By giving, he received.

Father Damien’s final, brief letter was addressed to the settlement’s resident physician, Doctor Swift. He wrote, “Jobo Puhomamia is spitting blood. Please spare a moment to go and see him. Please do this favor for your friend.”

While on the cross, Jesus thought of the welfare of His mother, His friends, His executors, and those executed with Him. Father Damien’s death was an example of the Master he served. Until the end, Father Damien’s thoughts went to caring for his friends.[18]

On the day after Palm Sunday, Father Damien knew his entry to heaven had come. He offered these final words, “The Lord is calling me to celebrate Easter with him.”[19] Father Damien died at 8:00 a.m. on Monday, April 15, 1889, at the age of 49. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”[20]

Ministering Principle #8: When serving as a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no more important title than that of friend.

Lead image of Father Damien with lepers at Kalaupapa from Wikimedia Commons.

Get more inspiring insights from Cameron Taylor in his new book, The Way of Aloha: Moloka'i.

After two decades of separation, Manu and Elder Taylor are reunited on the beautiful island of Moloka'i. As you visit the sacred places of Hālawa Valley, Kapuaiwa Royal Coconut Grove, and Kamakou rain forest, you'll learn truths about Aloha, slowing down, guardian angels, simplicity, and connecting with your creator. At locations throughout the leper colony of Kalaupapa, you'll be taught how to minister like the Lord Jesus Christ. This book will transport you to a tropical paradise to be touched by the light and love that radiates from the people and places of Moloka'i.

[1] John Beevers, A Man for Now (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), 62.
[2] John Tayman, The Colony (New York, NY: A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner, 2006), 127.
Jan de Volder, The Spirit of Father Damien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 73.
[3] Jan de Volder, The Spirit of Father Damien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 36.
[4] Jan de Volder, The Spirit of Father Damien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 36-37.
[5] John Beevers, A Man for Now (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), 67.
[6] Jan de Volder, The Spirit of Father Damien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 58.
[7] John Beevers, A Man for Now (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), 74.
[8] 3 Nephi 11:15.
[9] 3 Nephi 17:21.
[10] 3 Nephi 18:36.
[11] Jan de Volder, The Spirit of Father Damien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 68.
[12] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Of You It Is Required to Forgive,” Ensign, June 1991.
[13] Jan de Volder, The Spirit of Father Damien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 68-69.
[14] John Beevers, A Man for Now (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), 85-86.
[15] John Beevers, A Man for Now (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), 108.
Pat Williams, Jim Denney, How to Be Like Jesus (Deerfield Beach, FL: Faith Communications, 2003), 378-379.
[16] Jan de Volder, The Spirit of Father Damien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 141-142.
[17] John Beevers, A Man for Now (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), 134.
[18] Jan de Volder, The Spirit of Father Damien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 153.
John Beevers, A Man for Now (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), 139.
[19] Jan de Volder, The Spirit of Father Damien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 154.
[20] John 15:13


Stay in the loop!
Enter your email to receive updates on our LDS Living content