In life, Father Damien tended to the physical and spiritual needs of Hansen’s disease sufferers exiled for life to the difficult isolation of 19th century Molokai. In death, the legendary priest has not only been sainted by the Roman Catholic church, but a tony midtown street in Manhattan has now been named in his honor.
New street signs marking a one-block portion of 33rd Street between 1st and 2nd avenues as “Father Damien Way” were unveiled Monday in a ceremony attended by government and church leaders and scores of celebrants. The block includes the I.M. Pei-designed Kips Bay Towers, whose grounds feature a picturesque three-acre garden facing the renamed street.
“This is a special moment, not only for Hawaii, not only for Flanders, I think for all people interested in human rights,” said Geert Albert Bourgeois, minister-president of the regional Belgian government of Flanders. Born in Flanders, Damien was known prior to his ordination as Jozef De Veuster.
This statue of Saint Damien of Molokai greets visitors to Hawaii’s State Capitol.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Hawaiian government established the leper colony on Molokai in 1866 after an outbreak of leprosy sparked fears of an unchecked spread of the then-untreatable disease throughout the islands. Those diagnosed with leprosy were forced to relocate there, with no hope of ever returning to their homes. Father Damien was assigned to Molokai in 1873, and spent the next 16 years ministering to thousands of Hansen’s disease sufferers before ultimately dying of leprosy himself in 1889.
Father Damien’s life has long served as inspiration for others, from Mahatma Gandhi to President Barack Obama. Numerous churches around the world are named in his honor, as are schools in Hawaii and California. Five films have been produced about his life and mission service, as have countless books, and a statue of Father Damien is an iconic presence in front of the Hawaii State Capitol on Beretania Street.
In 2009, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI, becoming Saint Damien of Molokai.
The new street name provides a fitting address for the Chapel of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, now located at 325 Father Damien Way: The sainted priest was a member of the Catholic congregation of the same name.
“He was, let’s say, an early human rights activist,” said Bourgeois. “That’s why we are honoring him and why we try to bring honor to his legacy. That’s what we are doing here, and we hope he inspires a lot of people in Flanders, in the States, in Hawaii and all over the world. I want to thank everyone that helped us to realize this, and I’m especially grateful to the people of Hawai‘i.”
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