Small parish, big draw


POSTED: Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father Felix Vandebroek is pastor of one of the smallest parishes in the Catholic world.

The spiritual leader of the Catholic community of Kalaupapa, he sees about 16 people at Sunday Mass at St. Francis Church and only a handful in the pews at the 5:30 a.m. daily Mass.

Nowadays, he finds himself cast into the role of ministering to a larger, even global, flock as increasing numbers of people visit the historic settlement, most of them drawn by the story of Father Damien De Veuster, who will be declared a saint this year for his service there.

Visitors are intrigued by the 81-year-old pastor's link to the history of the place. Like Father Damien, he was born in Belgium and is a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. A showman would exploit the connection; the priest is more likely to change the subject.

“;We did not come to Hawaii to become a movie star,”; said Vandebroek who accepted the assignment in Kalaupapa a year ago at an age when most of his peers are retired.

He came to Hawaii in 1956, two years after ordination. He served in Maui, Oahu and Big Island parishes and was pastor of St. Raphael parish on Kauai for 25 years. Former parishioners got back in touch in the past year after seeing him interviewed on local television stations.

A Belgium television station film crew will be in Hawaii next week but, said Vandebroek, he doesn't expect to be at home when they get to Kalaupapa. He'll be on vacation, visiting his four brothers near his hometown of Houthalen.

Priests and nuns and others he's never met call or write seeking a special tour. He picks them up at the airport and heads for the eastern end of the peninsula, to St. Philomena Church, built by Damien and early Catholic settlers, and the gravesite where Damien was buried in 1889.

“;We had people from Antwerp in December, a group that takes care of the homeless,”; he recalled.

Friends brought Diederik Vekeman, founder of a soup kitchen and shelter he called Kamiano after Damien, to pray for healing of his brain tumor.

“;It was beautiful how those people prayed over him,”; said the priest. “;It was a true pilgrimage; they didn't stop to see Mickey Mouse on the way home.

“;Diederik told people 'I found peace at the grave of Damien.' He died at the beginning of March. To me it is a real miracle that he found the real meaning of his life, he found peace,”; Vandebroek said.

“;That makes it so wonderful, when you witness what people find here, when they leave here with a feeling of the place,”; he said.

Vandebroek lives in a small plantation-style rectory within walking distance of every place in the village at the west end of the peninsula. About half of the parishioners at St. Francis Church are former leprosy patients who chose to remain when the 100 years of forced quarantine was ended in 1969. The grounds and parish hall of the 100-year-old church are a center of community activities in the settlement where most residents are employees of the state Department of Health and National Park Service.

Vandebroek will lead services in Kalaupapa on Oct. 11, timed in synch with the canonization celebration in Rome. There are plans for the community to watch a live television broadcast of the ceremony and maybe catch a glimpse of the Kalaupapa residents and others from Hawaii who will be in Rome.

“;People are very thrilled about it. They can't stop talking about,”; said the pastor. “;You can't help getting wrapped up in their excitement, their dreams.”;