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'His heart was open to the spirit of aloha'


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POSTED: Sunday, July 12, 2009

Father Damien De Veuster was a “;persistently happy man,”; says a veteran teacher whose mission is to bring the 19th-century priest into perspective for 21st-century audiences.

“;I am the happiest missionary in the world. I am happy here with my sick children,”; Damien wrote in a letter to his family.

Sister Mary Dolorine Pires uses Damien's own descriptions of his work, friendships and hardships of life in Kalaupapa in her seminar on Damien.

Like Damien, Pires is a member of the religious order of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

The Maui-born nun told Damien stories to an adult audience in Lihue on Monday at a weeklong Faith Formation Conference sponsored by the Catholic diocese's Office of Religious Education. She will address a similar session on Maui in September and has lectured on Damien on Oahu both to schoolchildren and adults.

“;During the winter, I worked hard to enlarge my church and build a pretty tower,”; Damien wrote in an 1877 letter to his mother and brothers. “;Manual work is very good for my health, and I feel well and happy among my unfortunate sick people. The government is ever adding to the number so that, the more we bury, the more are sent to us. They are here for the rest of their life.”;

Pires said, “;His habit was to write a long letter to his family at the New Year. In the beginning he addressed them to his mother, but after a while it was to his brother Pamphile. It could be he had a sense that the time would come when he'd tell his brother, 'I have the disease; don't tell mother.'”;

The island of Molokai was visible from her home in Kula when Pires was growing up, and like others who chose the religious life, she was inspired by Damien.

Her career took her far from Damien's mission fields. After earning a doctoral degree from St. Louis University in Missouri, Pires was chosen to teach modern American literature at a secular college in Rome. She gave private English lessons.

She returned to Hawaii after 24 1/2 years in Rome and still writes the Sacred Hearts Pacific province newsletter and does translations of Spanish and French language communications.

Her evolving presentation on Damien portrays him as “;a happy man, a holy man ... and a true Hawaiian.”;

“;He was able to leave his culture behind and become Hawaiian, to sit on the floor, to be satisfied with the simple life,”; she said. “;His heart was open to the spirit of aloha. He took on the Hawaiian spirit of welcoming everyone. His love for children, his respect for the oneness of nature, his love for music”; all reflect a man who found his place in Hawaii.

King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani visited Kalaupapa, as did then-Princess Liliuokalani, and the king bestowed a medal of the Royal Order of Kalakaua to Damien for his service there.

“;To the royal mother of the people in suffering, Queen Kapiolani,”; Damien wrote in a later letter that requested a large wood-burning stove be sent to the settlement where, he said, he had a large family to feed.

Pires said, “;Very informally, he ends the letter with 'My aloha to the king and to our fellow workers. Your humble servant, Damien, Catholic priest.”;

As much as she wants to show the many-faceted character that Damien was, Pires said, “;We do him an injustice to make him the be-all and end-all. I don't want us to focus so much on Damien that we miss the point that he is only exemplifying what Jesus did for us a long time ago. I don't want Damien to obscure the source from whence he got that grace.”;