St Damien of Molokai

May 10


            There are some people whom all of us can agree are truly saints on earth.  One such must be Fr Damien de Veuster, who ministered to the remote leper colony at Kalaupapa, Hawaii, eventually succumbing to the disease.

            Although leprosy, or more properly Hansen's Disease, is now completely curable, it was a terrifying disease that led to disfigurement and death.  In Hawaii, leprosy was brought in by traders in the 1800s and the King ordered victims to be quarantined.  The sufferers, often teenagers, were literally cast off, thrown into the waters off the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokai.  This beautiful, but serene place is almost unreachable from the cliffs above (these days you have to take a long mule ride or a small plane to get there).  Those who survived lived meagerly with little care.

            Fr Damien de Veuster, a Belgian priest who had come to Hawaii as a missionary, asked for the assignment to minister those in Kalaupapa and arrived in 1873.  He served leprosy patients quarantined at Kalaupapa for 16 years until his death from the disease in 1889. He was among about 8,000 people who died there.

            On May 10, 2008, residents of Kalaupapa celebrated with a traditional luau for 150 people following a church service that marked the 100th anniversary of the dedication of St. Francis Church. Catholic Bishop Larry Silva told the crowd at morning Mass that the 19th-century missionary-priest was a model for service to people who need help with housing and medical care today.

            The crowd Saturday included some of the 27 remaining former patients who still call Kalaupapa home, as well as National Park Service and state Department of Health workers who maintain the settlement.

            Doctors from Honolulu, current and retired nurses from the settlement hospital, residents' family and friends from "outside," musicians from topside Molokai and Honolulu, all joined nuns from the religious societies that claim Father Damien De Veuster and Mother Marianne Cope to sing in a robust backup of the visiting choir from St. John Vianney Church on Oahu.

            "This is what it used to be like," said Norbert Palea, 67, the youngest of the former leprosy patients quarantined in the isolated Molokai peninsula. "When I came here 61 years ago, the church would be packed. Then, we had two Masses on Sunday."

Sister William Marie Eleniki, regional minister of the Sisters of St. Francis, reflected on the distant past. "This church was built in Mother Marianne's time. I'm sure she saw it as the center of the community." There have been Franciscan nurses at the settlement since the first nuns arrived in 1888.

            Kalaupapa present was being celebrated as much as Kalaupapa past, as each of the former patients basked in attention throughout the day. Only 27 of those sent into forced isolation remain, all free to leave since quarantine ended in 1969. Many have since traveled far and wide.

            The state has guaranteed them a home and medical care for life. They still identify themselves as "patients," a title of significant status in the village. Prokop said a newly funded project brought in a mason and volunteers to restore crumbling grave markers and eroded burial sites. Although an estimated 8,000 people are buried in Kalaupapa, only 1,300 graves are identified.

            The former nurses' quarters, a complex of 12 small housing units, is being restored, eventually to be used by the preservation craftsmen, he said. Buildings and landmarks in the peninsula have been under rehabilitation since the National Park Service was invited in 1980 to administer the place. Old wooden-frame, single-story structures make up the village, and they will be preserved as close to original as possible.

            "We don't want to just strip out old windows and screens and replace them with modern Home Depot kind," Prokop said. "We don't want to put in new fixtures. We want to keep the integrity of the community as it was, to have a timeless community here."

The bishop told the Mass crowd that Damien's work isn't just history, but also sets a course for the future.

            "Damien advocated health care, attention to those in need," Silva said. "He built many houses, hammered the boards himself, and he inspired others to build, to make a place where people could live in dignity and security." What Damien did "is a motivator for us today," Silva said in an interview. "He met a challenging situation with very few resources, but he did what he could. We need to do the same with affordable housing ... with the homeless. "In health care we can put programs together, but unless there's heart to them, unless there's spirit to them, then a funding challenge can endanger them, if they aren't necessarily connecting people to people," he said.

            Silva installed the Rev. Felix Vandebroek as pastor of the old church. Vandebroek, 80, has served in many island parishes since 1956. Like Damien, he was born in Belgium and is a member of the Sacred Hearts religious congregation. Nowadays, he said, the average crowd at Sunday Mass in Kalaupapa is 12 people.