A 750-foot stretch of New York City’s 33rd Street is now Father Damien Way in honor of the 19th century Roman Catholic priest who ministered to thousands of Hansen’s disease patients on Molokai’s Kalaupapa peninsula.
Representatives from Hawaii, including a state legislator and two Kalaupapa residents, were in Manhattan Monday for the street-naming ceremony. Also in attendance were members of the Catholic Diocese of Hawaii as well as Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York. The government of Flanders, the area of Belgium where St. Damien, born Joseph de Veuster, was raised, organized the event held near Bellevue Hospital where patients are still treated for Hansen’s disease.
In a news release, Sen. J. Kalani English (D, East Maui-Upcountry-Molokai-Lanai) said, “Saint Damien’s selfless work caring for Hansen’s disease patients in Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka‘i is an inspiration for all of us. He added that Damien, who was canonized in 2009, “embraced people that were segregated and thrown away.”
In 1873, Father Damien de Veuster moved to Molokai to live among Hansen’s disease patients sent there by the Kingdom of Hawaii’s order. Damien would spend the rest of his life on the island: He died in 1889 after contracting the disease, which then had no cure.
Decades after his death, a sulfone drug was developed to treat people with the disease then known as leprosy. Left untreated, leprosy, which weakens the immune system, can open the door to potentially deadly infections like pneumonia.
More than 8,000 people with Hansen’s disease were quarantined at Kalaupapa, according to Kalaupapa National Park. The quarantine was lifted in 1969.