Hawaii's missionaries


POSTED: Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father Damien De Veuster wrote about the loneliness of being a priest cut off from the counsel and collegiality of his peers.

“;Please plead the cause of the isolated priest of Kohala,”; he wrote to his superiors during his earliest assignment.

The missionary whose later service to leprosy patients in Kalaupapa earned him the title of saint was also free in expressing his feelings in letters to his family in Belgium.

Lonely isn't a word in common use by the Rev. Albert Miechielsen, 90, and the Rev. Stephen Van den Eynde, 87, the last of more than 300 priests from Belgium who came to Hawaii as Catholic missionaries. Neither man is comfortable talking about his feelings. Both now live in St. Patrick Monastery in Kaimuki, the retirement home of Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

They're proud of Damien, but he wasn't their inspiration for joining the priesthood. They didn't choose to follow him to Hawaii; both came to the islands as ordered by superiors in the France-based religious order. Their choice of vocation required vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience to their superiors.

Belgian missions in the Congo were the major destination for young priests in their day, said Van den Eynde, a tall, portly man who wears a Reyn's Damien-pattern aloha shirt for a photograph. He was sent to Hawaii right after ordination in 1948.

“;I did not like to come. I am the boy of a farmer. I wanted to walk through the Congo where the people were working hard to live. As a young man, I wanted to do the great work where the people were poor, poor, poor. When I was becoming a priest, they talked about Hawaii as being the rich guys.”;

Van den Eynde said: “;I pray to Damien every day. He was my neighbor.”;

He was born in Baal, which is near Damien's birthplace. He remembers being a schoolboy, watching the 1936 procession that returned a casket containing Damien's bones for burial in Louvain.

Miechielsen, who was born in Merksplas, said: “;I was not in a Sacred Hearts school, I was in an apostolic school. We weren't invited”; to the event.

Despite Damien's wish to be buried at Kalaupapa, the body was returned to his homeland at the request of the Belgian king.

Although his heroic service and death from leprosy was well known in Europe, there was no advocacy for Damien sainthood for nearly 100 years after his death. “;The main Sacred Hearts congregation was in France and they thought the first saint should be the founder. They were a little bit anti-Flemish,”; Miechielsen said, giving a capsule history of French-versus-Flemings warfare dating to the 13th century.

Miechielsen came to Hawaii in 1962 after serving in the Congo since 1947. He and other Europeans were forced out. The way he tells the story illustrates the stoic, unemotional Flemish character.

“;The Congo was a very primitive place,”; he said. “;They came to pick up all the white people. There was a little bit of violence the next day; one priest was beaten badly. The United Nations came to relieve us.

“;There were 50 Flemish priests when I came here. We spoke English always so the local people wouldn't think we talked about them. I knew I would stay in Hawaii for life. I had to get used to the customs of the people, the language.”;

There was no helpful orientation in those days. Each man had to learn English on his own, with the help of parishioners.

“;It was quite a while before they let me give a sermon,”; said Van den Eynde.

He served in parishes on Maui, Kauai and Oahu, including many years at St. Patrick Church. His only experience at Kalaupapa, relieving the sick pastor, came while separation was enforced.

“;You were not allowed to go in people's houses; they talked to you outside. I was scared to get sick there,”; he confesses. “;Damien didn't worry about himself. He was a nurse to people. He put his pipe on the table for others to smoke.”;

Miechielsen was assistant pastor on Kauai and in Kaneohe, and was pastor at Lanai City for 11 years. His spent three weeks in Kalaupapa.

Miechielsen still presides at the daily 7 a.m. Mass in the monastery. He has outlived his 10 siblings.

“;A niece calls from time to time,”; he said.

He receives a monthly magazine from his home, keeping abreast of the news and events there.

He shares a publication with a photograph of himself as a young priest, one of 14 from his parish to become missionaries.

Van den Eynde celebrates 6:15 a.m. Mass every day at the Malia O Ka Malu care facility of the Sacred Hearts sisters, and hears confessions on the first Saturday of each month for a Catholic lay group. He said he calls his older sister, a nun in Belgium, frequently.

“;I told her I am not coming for the canonization. I walk with a cane now. I don't dare to go. It is sad in one way not to show those in Belgium that there are still Belgians in Hawaii.”;

They share meals in the monastery's airy dining room with three retired brothers and housekeeper Anna Tsui, who said there were 24 men dining there eight years ago. Empty spaces at the large communal table are witness to the missing; their countrymen, the Revs. Joe Hendriks and Francis Schellemans, died in recent months.

The high-ceiling hallways of St. Patrick Monastery feel lonely to a visitor. The parlor stands empty and visitors are infrequent, not even the other 18 Sacred Hearts fathers still on duty in Hawaii parishes. Group photographs of black-robed clerics hint that the halls once rang with hearty voices. Today, voices emanate from bedroom television sets, each watched in solitude.