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New York to honor Belgian priest who served the suffering on Molokai

A New York street will be named for the Belgian priest who tended ailing outcasts in a colony on Molokai

A Belgian priest who cared for a colony of Hawaiians suffering a disfiguring and much-feared disease will be honored as New York names a street for him.

Street signs that will designate 33rd Street between 1st and 2nd avenues in Manhattan as “Father Damien Way” are to be unveiled May 11.

Joseph de Veuster was born in 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium, and would grow up to become a missionary. He was sent to Hawaii, arriving in 1864 in Honolulu.

He was so disturbed by the plight of those suffering from leprosy, now called Hansen disease, that he volunteered to manage the leper colony settlement at Kalaupapa on Molokai.

“People who contracted leprosy were condemned to isolation by society,” Nicolas Polet of New York’s Flanders House  told me. The organization works in the U.S. to promote the culture, history and innovation of the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium, where the missionary priest was born and raised.

Father Damien contracted the illness in 1884 and died five years later. He was canonized in 2009.

The street signs will be placed along the block that is home to the Chapel of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Damien, now known as St. Damien of Molokai, was a member of the Roman Catholic congregation  of the same name.

Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan, the archbishop of New York, will be among the dignitaries attending a ceremony at the church after the 1:30 p.m. unveiling of the street signs. Members of the public are welcome.

St. Damien’s work is remembered at the Kalaupapa National Historic Park on Molokai. He spent a dozen years serving the sick and suffering there.

“He was a human rights activist before the term was even coined,” Polet said.

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