Hawaii celebrates saint who cared for lepers

Father Damien
A relic of Father Damien — now Saint Damien — is carried in a procession to the Iolani Palace in Honolulu on Sunday as part of the interfaith celebration of his canonization.Lucy Pemoni / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hawaii feted the canonization of Saint Damien with a Mass and an interfaith celebration that underscored the 19th century priest's enduring popularity in the islands.

More than 1,200 people attended Sunday's Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu, where Damien was ordained in 1864.

The church seats about 500, so an overflow crowd watched on television monitors outside. Hundreds more joined the festivities at Iolani Palace, where politicians and leaders from the Episcopal, Mormon and United Church of Christ denominations spoke at the interfaith celebration.

The Hawaii commemorations came several weeks after the Vatican made Damien, born in Belgium as Joseph de Veuster in 1840, a saint in a ceremony presided over by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.

The high attendance showed Damien continues to draw fans for the way he cared for leprosy patients banished to the remote peninsula of Kalaupapa when no one else would.

'Unselfish dedication'
"Damien is celebrated the world over for his love of Christ and for his unselfish dedication to those who are most abandoned," said the Rev. Larry Silva, the bishop of the Honolulu diocese.

Leprosy was particularly devastating to Native Hawaiians, who had no natural immunity to it or many of the other diseases brought to the islands after Capt. James Cook, the first European to visit Hawaii, arrived in 1778. Some 90 percent of the 8,000 people exiled to Kalaupapa over the decades were Native Hawaiian.

The hula group Kealiikaapunihonua Keena Ao Hula performed three Hawaiian chants at the beginning of Sunday's Mass. One, composed specially for the canonization, spoke of how Damien was called into service by God and how he loved the people of Kalaupapa until he died.

About a dozen women from the group, all dressed in long white muumuu and green lei, performed hula or "liturgical gestures" at the end of the Mass.

Kimi Rodrigues, a group member who also traveled to Europe for the canonization, was touched to see the outpouring of affection for Damien. "I could tell that Hawaii loves the saint," she said.

The Rev. Robert Fitzpatrick, the Episcopal Church bishop in Hawaii, said everyone — not just Catholics — could learn from the way Damien cared for others and lobbied the powerful to better care for leprosy patients.

"Saint Damien belongs to all of us," Fitzpatrick said at the interfaith celebration. "And so to his mother church — thank you for sharing."

Bone on tour
In the weeks since the canonization, the Roman Catholic Church has been taking one of Damien's heel bones on a tour of the state.

The relic, carefully protected in a koa wood box, traveled to the Big Island, where Damien worked for nine years, and to Maui, where he volunteered to go to Kalaupapa.

On Saturday, church youth carried the relic to Kalaupapa, gingerly making their way down the steep cliffs that separate the peninsula from the rest of Molokai island.

On Sunday, the relic was placed at the center of the cathedral during Mass. It was also carried into the Throne Room at Iolani Palace, where Hawaiian royalty who supported Damien's efforts once reigned over the island kingdom.

Damien built homes for Kalaupapa's leprosy patients and bandaged their wounds at a time when the disfiguring disease still carried a powerful social stigma, and almost no one else wanted to get near those who had it.

He was diagnosed with the disease 12 years after he arrived in Kalaupapa and died four years later in 1889.

Leprosy has been treatable with drugs since the 1940s and the state stopped exiling patients to Kalaupapa in 1969. Today, only about 20 former patients, all elderly, still live there. They're cured of the disease and are free to leave, but have chosen to stay because Kalaupapa has become their home.

Damien is Hawaii's first saint. But many islanders are hopeful that a nun who also cared for leprosy patients at Kalaupapa, Mother Marianne Cope, will soon be made a saint as well.