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Hawaiian Priest on Road to Sainthood

Many have long considered Father Damien de Veuster a saint.

On Oct. 11, in a ceremony in St. Peter's Square, the Roman Catholic Church will make it official.

For Catholics, the honor is a singular one - an affirmation of a holy life, the recognition of a modern Christian hero.

But many non-Catholics are rejoicing, too: taking inspiration or pride or strength from Damien's remarkable story.

"We live in a world with so few heroes, examples of what we can be," said Father Herman Gomes, of St. Ann's Church in Kaneohe, Hawaii, who has been giving talks on Damien since 1994 to churches and school groups. "He is the model. You look at a life of dedication and perseverance, how can you not be inspired, amazed and spurred on to do that for yourself?"

It was 136 years ago that Damien volunteered to be part of a rotation of four young priests who would minister to hundreds of Hansen's disease patients quarantined for life by the government in Kalaupapa on the remote island of Molokai. The missionary priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary was told he would stay for three months. He stayed for 16 years, helping to tend to the sick, celebrating Masses and improving conditions at the settlement with oftentimes intensive labor.

As Kalaupapa's only resident priest, he built coffins, dug graves and delivered funeral services.

In his first two years at the settlement, he buried some 200 parishioners.

The Belgian priest, always handy with tools, also helped to construct a church, hospital and water system in Kalaupapa.

He was, not long after taking his post, a community leader and a beloved friend to many.

"I am not a relative by marriage or blood, but I am his daughter in spirit," said Hansen's disease patient Mele Meheula, according to a new book, "Father Damien ... 'A bit of taro, a piece of fish and a glass of water,' " which tells Kalaupapa's story through the voices of residents. Patient Joseph Manu said of Damien, "He was my spiritual father and my friend."

Damien died in Kalaupapa at age 49, on April 15, 1889, four years after being diagnosed with Hansen's disease, more notoriously known as leprosy.

When word of his death reached first the U.S. Mainland and then Europe, thousands mourned.

A rallying cry for his canonization quickly erupted. Londoners hurried to buy copies of a photograph of Damien taken on his deathbed, and when they were displayed in Birmingham storefronts, "so many people came to crowd against the shop windows that police had to be called to clear the streets," writes Gavan Daws in "Holy Man," a Damien biography.

Damien's formal cause for sainthood was not introduced until 1955.

It would take 40 more years for Father Damien to be beatified, taking on the title "blessed" - one step from sainthood.

Long before that, people around the globe had embraced his message of compassion. In 1971, Gandhi said Father Damien was one of his inspirations. "The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokaci," Gandhi said, in an account on Hansen's disease in India. "It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism."

Schools, churches and organizations have also used Damien as a namesake to honor the priest and his life's work.

The Damien Institute in India was founded in 1983 and helps Hansen's disease patients. The Damien Center, which was founded in 1987 in Indianapolis, is the largest HIV/AIDS organization in Indiana and is a leader in education and prevention. On its Web site, it says of Damien that he "battled the religious and societal rejection of Hansen's disease victims, living with and among them."

1 Responses »

  1. Wonderful story1 He was a true saint!