St. Damien - a true hero to his people, his church

  • October 11, 2009
{mosimage}Fr. Damien de Veuster, canonized Oct. 11, understood Christ’s message of caring for others — something we can all learn from, and should. Also worth noting is the impact his canonization has had and will have on the tiny island of Molokai where he ministered to victims of leprosy, now known as Hansen’s Disease.

When I flew out to Hawaii two years ago, I had the surprise of my life. Not only was Molokai Island the home to cowboys, spear-fishers and, believe it or not, thousands of goats living in the mountains, it was also home to a vibrant and rather large Catholic community. Their enthusiasm first hit when when I attended Sunday Mass — I was greeted at the door with a lei made of small seashells and, along with other first-timers, was asked to stand up before Mass so that I could be introduced, by name, to the congregation. 

I worked and lived in the south side, sea-level town of Kaunakakai, writing for a now-defunct weekly newspaper. I began to learn about the remote northern Kalaupapa settlement, where roughly a dozen survivors of Hansen’s Disease live today. I was shocked to learn that 8,000 people with Hansen’s Disease became segregated at the base of those 2,000-foot sea cliffs — that’s more than the current population of the entire island.

Hawaiians place a high value on ohana, the importance of family. Yet family was the most severed cultural value because of leprosy. About 90 per cent of the lepers were Hawaiian, so about 7,200 Hawaiians were displaced from their families and left to feel unwanted and forgotten.

Fr. Damien came to their rescue, building hospitals, houses, chapels and coffins, organizing picnics and teaching their children. He ministered to both their physical and spiritual needs, restoring their dignity, their sense of ohana and their quality of life. He was the Mother Teresa of Hawaii, bringing Christ to the most rejected members of society.

Trekking down the sea cliff via a set of 26 switchbacks to attend a Catholic Mass in honour of the island’s other religious hero, Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, I learned that Fr. Damien often made the climb at a more challenging location, to reach “topside” Molokai where he built several Catholic churches.

“My” parish of St. Sophia’s wasn’t one of them, but it is still an important building, used as the main hub of activity for the Molokai Catholic community. It’s also in desperate need of replacement. It’s much too small for the community, as two churches were closed in 1988 and only one priest was assigned to care for the entire population topside of the island (Kalaupapa has its own priest). People spill out into the churchyard during Mass for lack of space, listening through the open windows and doors. Termites have done a good job of compromising the structure. I was astounded that the community has spent the past decade raising $1.5 million — half of what is needed to build their new church — while the archdiocese of Toronto raises $15 million yearly just for its charities. It seems that Fr. Damien has taught them there are no limits to what they can do, with perseverance and love.

Molokai went through its own recession before the resounding crash in the rest of the United States. The Molokai Ranch closed, leaving more than 120 residents jobless. But in reconnecting with old friends, I learned that the island was slowly bouncing back, and the Blessed Damien Church community was still diligently fundraising with hopeful plans to begin building in the next year. The Sacred Heart Order bought Stanley’s Coffee Shop next to St. Sophia’s, which they re-opened this weekend and set up with a TV for people to watch the canonization live. The Damien Centre, as it is now called, will be used as a museum for sharing about Fr. Damien and his legacy.

I was glad to hear that Fr. Damien’s legacy would not only provide inspiration worldwide, but that it might also generate some revenue to help the community pay for its new church. The numbers of pilgrim tourists has already increased in the past year and new spiritual walking tours are being offered by Molokai Outdoors, led by some of the church’s faithful.

In advocating for Fr. Damien’s canonization, the faithful helped create a mini-revival among young and old. My second week in, I witnessed the first Sunday evening youth Mass — attended by a handful of Catholics who hadn’t been to church in a while. With World Youth Day 2008 approaching, the youth group that organized the Mass bubbled with excitement as they prepared to head off to Australia as the tiny island’s first delegation of youth to any World Youth Day. They were ready to share their soon-to-be-saints with the world. It will be youth, who with bishops and clergy, will proceed down to Kalaupapa with a Fr. Damien relic for a celebration with the patients in late October. Fr. Damien’s memory has helped to re-evangelize the next generation.

Living and working among the Hawaiian people gave me a rare taste of the importance of canonizing saints in the Catholic Church. It allows people to share their hero with the worldwide Catholic community and take pride in the church. It allows us to immortalize the memory of our saints’ Christ-like actions as an example for generations to come.

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