Born on January 3, 1840, in Tremeloo, near Louvain, Joseph De Veuster (Damien is his religious name) was the youngest surviving and seventh of the eight children of Frans and Anne-Catherine, Flemish-speaking farmers. Forty-nine years later, he died from leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, during Holy Week on Monday, April 15, 1889 in Kalawao of Molokai, literally on the other side of the world, having ministered to those living and dying in exile in the settlement for sixteen years.
Pope Benedict XVI canonized St. Damien of Molokai on October 11, 2009 at St. Peter’s Basilica. It may seem odd that it should have taken over a century to canonize a man who devoted himself ardently to the care of the poorest of the poor, and literally spent his life in the imitation of Christ. A reading of Gavan Daws’ biography Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai in light of the mimetic theory of René Girard—which argues that all human activity is rooted in imitation, the contagion of rivalry, and the sacrifice (and sacralization) of a scapegoat to create and maintain social order—can help to clarify this oddity.
In email exchanges with Daws—who is “not a Catholic, not a practicing Christian”—the author explained that an international competition to choose a sculptor for the statue of St. Damien of Molokai for Statuary Hall is what first caught his interest: