Sacred relic


POSTED: Monday, June 29, 2009

A bone from the foot of a saint was sealed in a small metal box this month, destined for a shrine around the world in downtown Honolulu.

The relic of Father Damien DeVeuster had been tucked away for more than a half-century in the Belgium archives of the religious order to which he belonged. It was stored apart from the rest of his remains, which rest in a marble sarcophagus in Louvain, Belgium, a city near his hometown.

That turned out to be serendipity for Hawaii Catholics. Hawaii Bishop Larry Silva asked to bring a part of Damien home to the land he embraced after he is declared a saint in October.

The Vatican and the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary said yes, but there is some reluctance in Belgium. Some people there talked about a “;violation of the grave”; when the crypt was opened in 1995 to remove a zinc box containing bones of Damien's right hand. That relic was reburied in Damien's original grave on the Kalaupapa peninsula.

The recent rediscovery of the forgotten relic kept in humble conditions was the topic of a front page story June 22 in a leading Belgium newspaper. Found with the bone was an envelope containing a cutting of Damien's hair, also considered a relic.

The Rev. Frits Gorrisen, Sacred Hearts provincial superior in Belgium, told the tale of the overlooked relics, as recorded in 1956 documents, to Het Nieuwsblad reporter Dirk Musschoot.

Church officials opened Damien's casket in 1956 at the beginning of the process to have him declared a saint. They identified the bones, sealing them into numerous zinc boxes.

“;When they cleaned up the place after the identification, there were some things left, a woolen cloth that was used to keep Damien's remains in place and some pieces of wood,”; Musschoot said. “;The judges ordered those things burned in the garden of the Sacred Hearts monastery next door. When they started to do this, they discovered a little bone and some hair clippings.”;

The 1956 document said it “;almost for sure is a bone from Damien's foot, left or right, probably a piece of his heel.”; The judge ordered it and the hair to be sealed in a tin tea box.

Musschoot wrote that the labeled box was stored and “;disappeared into the folds of history.”; In the past year, a new Sacred Hearts archivist, Patrik Jaspers, remembered the tin box “;so, yes, there was a relic they could give to the Hawaiian people without opening Damien's grave,”; said the reporter. The lid of the crypt, incidentally, weighs more than three tons.

“;We are pleased with the finding because it saves us a lot of hassle,”; said Gorissen. Two weeks ago, Gorissen and Vicar General Etienne Van Billoen of the Brussels-Mechelen diocese opened the forgotten religious treasure to evaluate the state of the relics. They found the hair in exceptionally good condition; it will be presented to Pope Benedict XVI.

The bone was “;pulverized and does not speak to the imagination,”; Musschoot wrote.

Gorrisen said, “;The opening of the box was pretty emotional. You can't come closer to Damien.”;

He said he hopes people don't just blindly focus on the artifacts. “;The important thing is what Damien in his firm belief gave to his people.”;

The Honolulu bishop chimed in with a similar sentiment halfway around the globe.

“;We want to imitate Father Damien's holiness and his dedication to serving people,”; Silva said. “;The relic is a reminder of him. It recalls for us what his life and his dedication was all about.”;

Silva will carry the relic back to Hawaii in the zinc box that measures about 3-by-3-by-3.5 inches. He said it will not be opened for viewing.

It will be on display in Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in the large koa box, or reliquary, made to hold the first relic brought back to Hawaii in 1995.

Asked about the centuries-old tradition of keeping saints' bones as relics in churches, Silva answered: “;People visit cemeteries. Why? Because they want to be near to the body of the one they love. Love never dies.

“;Hawaiians have great reverence for the iwi, the bones of the dead, because of the connection to their ancestors.”;

When Catholics revere saints, they ask their intercession with God.

“;We don't want it to be superstitious,”; said Silva. “;Our creed tells us of the resurrection of the body. As we reverence the body or part of the body, we reverence the whole person. It is the same person, body and soul, that's with us.”;