Source: December 2009 Ka Wai Ola o OHA Column

On October the 11, 2009, Father Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peters Basilica in Vatican City, Rome.  Saint Damien was born Joseph De Veuster on January 3, 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium into a large family.  His parents were farmers and merchants and it was expected that Joseph would take over the family business after his oldest brother decided to enter the congregation of the Scared Hearts of Jesus and Mary.  However, this was not to be.

In 1859, Joseph entered the novitiate in Louvain, Belgium, the same religious order that his brother had entered, where he took the name of Damien.  In 1863, his brother became ill and could not leave on a mission to the Hawaiian Islands.  Joseph obtained permission from the Superior General to take his brother’s place.

Joseph arrived in Honolulu on March 19, 1864 where he was ordained to the priesthood the following May 21st.  In learning about Saint Damien and the struggles he endured as a priest living in Kalawao, Molokai, or what is now known as Kalaupapa, I can truly say that no one in this lifetime could have survived the harsh and cruel conditions there with the same grace and compassion.

Damien’s arrived at a time when the Hawaiian Monarchy was struggling with the dilemma of what to do about the outbreak of Hansen’s Disease that was quickly spreading throughout the islands.  It was decided that all those who were infected be isolated on the island of Molokai in the remote area of Kalawao.

The entire Catholic Mission led by Bishop Louis Maigret was concerned about the abandonment of the “lepers.”  He asked for volunteers who would take turns administering aide to them and four priests volunteered.  Damien was first to leave on May 10, 1873.  After seeing the harsh conditions in Kalawao and how seriously ill the patients were, he asked the Bishop’s permission to remain indefinitely on Molokai.  Thus, Damien spared the other priests from exposure to the disease.

On October 1, 2009, I traveled along with a Hawaii delegation on a pilgrimage to Belgium and to Rome to honor Father Damien.  We visited Father Damien’s hometown of Tremelo where the people of the town embraced us.  I can now truly understand where the kindness and compassion that father Damien had for our Hawaiian people came from.

“We are reminded through the life lessons exemplified by Father Damien that we are each given an opportunity while we are on God’s earth to try and make a difference in someone’s life no matter how big or how small.  It only matters that we try.”

To Father Damien, people were people, and his service to his God meant to serve all of God’s people.  We are reminded through the life lessons exemplified by Father Damien that we are each given an opportunity while we are on God’s earth to try and make a difference in someone’s life no matter how big or how small.  It only matters that we try.

We walked along the same streets that he walked and entered his boyhood home which is now a small museum.  Touring the century old town with its quaint streets and beautiful classical buildings was an unforgettable experience.  At the end of a Mass held in Tremelo, the Bishop of Belgium said, “Thank you Hawaii, we gave you a priest and you gave us back a Saint. We are forever linked together as one people.”

On October the 6th, our group arrived in Rome and our hotel was very near Saint Peters Square and the Vatican.  Upon arrival, I was acutely aware of the stark contrast between the smaller towns of Belgium and the hustle and bustle of Rome.  I also found it interesting how Rome’s ancient history and architecture deeply intertwined with the modern city.

It is fascinating how parts of ancient Rome continue to exist in modern times as they did centuries ago.  I walked upon the same cobblestone streets that Romans in ancient times traversed.  What is astonishing is that a large city like Rome has not widened its streets to accommodate automobiles.  Cars and motorcycles regularly zip in and out of narrow streets made for horses and foot traffic.  To add to the congestion, Romans regularly double and triple park their cars.

Almost every building in Rome has ornate architecture and statues.  The 600 churches within the city are decorated with beautiful paintings on both the walls and ceilings.  St. Peters Basilica is the most beautiful church I have ever seen.  St. Peter is buried underneath the Basilica.  Located nearby is the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo spent more than half of his life painting the magnificent ceiling.  Everything that you have ever read about in school is there before you.

Despite the many distractions, we did not forget the reason we all made our pilgrimage to Rome — the canonization of our beloved Father Damien.  On October 11th, we lined up at St. Peters square at 6:30 am to ensure we got seats before the program began.  The gates opened at 8:15 am and by that time there were 60,000 people waiting to get into the Square and many more coming in tour buses and walking in large groups.  Suddenly, they all rushed towards the gate with a determined look in their eyes.  There was much pushing, shoving, and shouting in different languages as everyone scrambled to get one of the limited number of seats available.  Thankfully, no one was trampled.

The Mass began at 8:30 am.  The King and Queen of Belgium, the Royals of Italy, Senator Daniel Akaka and Lt. Governor Duke Aiona were but a few of the many dignitaries  in the audience.  Participants included the Brothers and Fathers of the Scared Heart Order of Connecticut, Los Angeles, the Philippines, and the Northern Marianas, who were all led by Bishop Silva of Honolulu.  St. Peters Basilica was packed to its brim with visitors from everywhere in the world, with thousands more listening and watching on the jumbo screens in the square.  All told, there were as many as 100,000 people there.  Before we knew it, like a blink of an eye, the Mass was over and Father Damien had become Saint Damien.

Our next stop is the thriving community of Assisi, about three hours outside of Rome.  We traveled through farm country and lots of open spaces.  It was a sharp contrast to Rome.  Finally, high on the mountain top of Assisi, we witnessed the birth place of Saint Francis.  The view was breathtaking.  We then visited St. Francis’s Church and his tomb.  Beautiful, centuries old buildings were still being used as merchant shops and homes.  We stopped long enough to get some heavenly sweet gelatos.  There really is no such thing as a bad meal in Italy.  The smells, the deserts, the wines, the people, the excitement of the cities and its energy were invigorating.

Next, our group attended a Hawaiian Mass at St. Paul’s church in Rome presided over by Bishop Silva and the Priests of the Scared Hearts Order including the Honorable Father Lane Akiona, Father Gomes, Father Jonathan, Father Preston, Father Bruce, and others. Special dances by our Halau and our choir made this Mass very special.  St. Paul’s church is one of the most visited churches in Rome and second in size only to St. Peters Basilica.

The next day, we say aloha to Rome and head back to Hawaii.

The final Aloha and Mahalo to St. Damien took place on the grounds of Iolani Palace on November 1st.  Belgium dignitaries and our own Princess Abigail Kawananakoa exchange their gratitude and love for St. Damien.  In this final farewell, the Princess shares some intimate letters that were written between Queen Kapiolani, King David Kalakaua and Princess Liliuokalani with St. Damien.

Princess Liliuokalani first visited Kalaupapa on September 15, 1881.  She witnessed the patients’ swollen, half-shut eyes, the black scabs and running sores, their mutilated members, and their gangrenous hands and feet.  Some of the sufferers hid their wounds under bloodstained bandages; others let their wounds show as though they no longer thought of them.  Princess Liliuokalani burst into tears when she recognized some of them.  She attempted to speak, but could not.  She wanted to see everything at the site including the housing, the hospital, the orphanages, the churches, the rectory and the stores.  She left with a broken heart.

Father Damien wrote to Queen Kapiolani about the plight of the Hawaiian people whom he cared for and appealed to her to send provisions.  In a June of 1884 letter, Queen Kapiolani wrote, “Dear father Damien, I am awaiting your approval of the allotment of clothes for the lepers and the number to be supplied.  The giving of the clothes for he lepers are being withheld until I hear from you.  With best wishes to you and our beloved lepers, Kapiolani.”

On July 30, 1884, Damien responded, “I was honored to receive your letter. To execute your loving orders I put myself right to work.  I have visited the homes and saw with my own eyes their needs, and inquired of their pain.  Here is a list of Kalawao.  The list for Kalaupapa I will mail next week.  My respectful greetings to the King.  Your humble servant.”

On August 6, 1884, Father Damien wrote, “To the Royal mother of the people in suffering Queen Kapiolani, greetings.  Your letter is in the hands of your obedient servant.  I have fulfilled your requests.  I have finished the catalogue of names of the sick people imploring the mercy of their mothers.  Through the Board of Health you will receive a list of all of the people who are living here with their date of birth.  A kind request for myself and my large family to you, O princess, when all of the freight is ready to be shipped, tell the head Sister, Sister Marianne, to board the ship with you in order to select a site for the establishment of the sisters at Kalawao.”

It is clear from these writings that Father Damien enlisted the aide of not only the Royal family but also the support of anyone who would listen.  He then used whatever materials he could find to build houses, churches and hospitals for the patients.  Against all odds he formed a sense of community and provided much needed services such as baptisms and marriages.  In one of his writings he wrote: “My greatest happiness is to serve the Lord in these poor sick children, rejected by others.”

Today, as it was then, the world now rejects the less fortunate of all kinds such as the victims of AIDS and other diseases, abandoned children, disoriented youth, abused women, neglected elderly, oppressed minorities and the homeless.  In Damien, we see the Good Samaritan, who stopped to give aide to the sick and to those who had been cast aside by society. Damien is and will remain for all of us a servant of the human spirit and person, a servant of humanity that needs to live but more importantly needs reason for living.

This is the Damien challenge to all of us today.  Can we find the Good Samaritan in us?