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Pope will lift Damien to sainthood this fall


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POSTED: Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hundreds of Hawaii residents are expected to be in St. Peter's Square in Rome on Oct. 11 when Father Damien De Veuster is finally named a saint.

"[Preview]"    Locals Rejoice, Father Damien Canonized
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It has been official, the holy man of Molokai will become a saint in Rome on October 11th.

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The stage was set yesterday when Pope Benedict XVI set the date for canonization, when the man who lived and worked in the humblest of conditions will be elevated with all the pageantry of the Catholic Church.

The celebration began this weekend in Hawaii. This morning, a special Mass of Thanksgiving was to be held in Kalaupapa, where Damien died in 1889. Last night it was standing room only at Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in downtown Honolulu as the Rev. Marc Alexander, diocesan vicar general, celebrated a Thanksgiving Mass.

"I think he was pretty much acclaimed as a saint from the beginning," said Hawaii Catholic Bishop Larry Silva, who was in Rome yesterday for the gathering at which the Pope set the canonization date for 10 people. Silva said the story of Damien's heroic service was told while he was still alive and for generations since then, "So in that sense, it is long overdue."

The Belgian missionary priest came to Hawaii in 1864. In 1873, he volunteered to go to the remote Molokai peninsula where the government banished victims of leprosy — which had reached epidemic proportions, mostly among native Hawaiians. He worked there — providing health care and building housing as well as being a spiritual mentor — for 16 years until his death of the disease.

"I think what this really means is that the story of Kalaupapa will be told forever," Silva said in a teleconference call to a news conference at the Honolulu diocese headquarters. He said Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, who led Franciscan nuns to Hawaii to care for leprosy patients, "will be the storytellers into perpetuity, of the suffering and yet the human warmth, and the faith that changed the suffering into a place of love and joy."

Church leaders spoke at the press conference but the one who drew the most rapt attention was 80-year-old Audrey Toguchi, a retired public schoolteacher, whose spontaneous healing from cancer in both lungs is considered a miracle attributable to Damien. She told about praying to ask Damien to intercede with God on her behalf.

Asked if she is proud of her part in the sainthood process, Toguchi said, "I don't feel proud, I feel very humble. Here's a great man who reached out and loved all of these people even though they were outcasts, and made them feel that they were special."

Toguchi said she remembers when Damien's remains, which had been buried next to the church he built in Kalaupapa, were returned to Belgium. "In 1936, my class went down to Fort Street and saw his casket carried from the cathedral to the ship." She was a student at St. Augustine Church.

Toguchi plans to be in Rome for the canonization.

So does Clarence "Boogie" Kahilihiwa, 67, a Kalaupapa resident since 1959. "We always knew he was a saint," said Kahilihiwa, one of 25 former Hansen's disease patients who still live there. They are among the last people to be sent into forced isolation during the 100 years of quarantine, which was finally lifted by the state in 1969.

There have been religious services and other celebrations memorializing Damien at the remote Molokai peninsula for generations. It is common to hear residents speak of Damien in the present tense.

Kahilihiwa has a memory that provides a direct historical link with the saint. "There was a fragile old lady who lived at Bishop Home when I came here. They called her Tutu Meheula.

"Her picture was in photos with Father Damien. He held her hand. She was 12 years old when he died. To me she was a connection to him," said Kahilihiwa.

"You don't have to be Catholic to be connected to Damien," he said. "We all are human, we can all love one another."

Kahilihiwa said at least a half-dozen of the former patients intend to join the group heading for Rome in October. The diocese chose Seawind Tours and Travel to organize a Hawaii tour.

"It will be a mix between a true pilgrimage and quite a bit of sightseeing," said tour agency president Randy King. Information on the trip may be found on the agency's Web page: http://www.seawindtours.com/damien.

King said Hawaii residents have already been invited to participate in an Oct. 4 celebration planned by Damien's home village of Tremeloo, Belgium.

The announcement yesterday generated exuberant response in Belgium, where the effort to get church recognition for Damien was begun in 1937. In a popularity poll last year, Belgians named Damien as the best-known Belgian, topping the votes for a popular athlete.

A front-page story today in Het Nieuwsblad, one of the country's largest daily papers, reports that the mayor of Tremeloo has invited Hawaii-born President Barack Obama to come along to the Oct. 4 festivities honoring the saint Belgium and Hawaii share.