Sunday, February 22, 2009

With Sainthood Set, Joy in Hawaii

His bronze likeness has long kept watch outside the state capitol in Honolulu, but yesterday's news that Blessed Damien deVeuster will be canonized on 11 October sparked a new surge of Hawaiian pride over the Belgian priest who'll become the islands' first saint:
This morning, a special Mass of Thanksgiving was to be held in Kalaupapa, where Damien died in 1889. Last night it was standing room only at Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in downtown Honolulu as the Rev. Marc Alexander, diocesan vicar general, celebrated a Thanksgiving Mass.

"I think he was pretty much acclaimed as a saint from the beginning," said Hawaii Catholic Bishop Larry Silva, who was in Rome yesterday for the gathering at which the Pope set the canonization date for 10 people. Silva said the story of Damien's heroic service was told while he was still alive and for generations since then, "So in that sense, it is long overdue."

The Belgian missionary priest came to Hawaii in 1864. In 1873, he volunteered to go to the remote Molokai peninsula where the government banished victims of leprosy — which had reached epidemic proportions, mostly among native Hawaiians. He worked there — providing health care and building housing as well as being a spiritual mentor — for 16 years until his death of the disease.

"I think what this really means is that the story of Kalaupapa will be told forever," Silva said in a teleconference call to a news conference at the Honolulu diocese headquarters. He said Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, who led Franciscan nuns to Hawaii to care for leprosy patients, "will be the storytellers into perpetuity, of the suffering and yet the human warmth, and the faith that changed the suffering into a place of love and joy."

Church leaders spoke at the press conference but the one who drew the most rapt attention was 80-year-old Audrey Toguchi, a retired public schoolteacher, whose spontaneous healing from cancer in both lungs is considered a miracle attributable to Damien. She told about praying to ask Damien to intercede with God on her behalf.

Asked if she is proud of her part in the sainthood process, Toguchi said, "I don't feel proud, I feel very humble. Here's a great man who reached out and loved all of these people even though they were outcasts, and made them feel that they were special."...

Toguchi said she remembers when Damien's remains, which had been buried next to the church he built in Kalaupapa, were returned to Belgium. "In 1936, my class went down to Fort Street and saw his casket carried from the cathedral to the ship." She was a student at St. Augustine Church.

Toguchi plans to be in Rome for the canonization.

So does Clarence "Boogie" Kahilihiwa, 67, a Kalaupapa resident since 1959. "We always knew he was a saint," said Kahilihiwa, one of 25 former Hansen's disease patients who still live there. They are among the last people to be sent into forced isolation during the 100 years of quarantine, which was finally lifted by the state in 1969.

There have been religious services and other celebrations memorializing Damien at the remote Molokai peninsula for generations. It is common to hear residents speak of Damien in the present tense....

"You don't have to be Catholic to be connected to Damien," he said. "We all are human, we can all love one another."...

The announcement yesterday generated exuberant response in Belgium, where the effort to get church recognition for Damien was begun in 1937. In a popularity poll last year, Belgians named Damien as the best-known Belgian, topping the votes for a popular athlete.

A front-page story today in Het Nieuwsblad, one of the country's largest daily papers, reports that the mayor of Tremeloo has invited Hawaii-born President Barack Obama to come along to the Oct. 4 festivities honoring the saint Belgium and Hawaii share.
The Kalupapa colony will close on the death of its last occupant, but will remain a national park. Within its bounds stands St Philomena's, the church built by the saint-to-be shortly after his arrival.

PHOTO: Dennis Oda/Honolulu Star-Bulletin