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Soon the world will know the story of a saintly man


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POSTED: Sunday, July 12, 2009

The fame of Father Damien De Veuster is reaching a peak this year as the Catholic Church's ponderous process of naming a saint reaches a finale with his canonization Oct. 11 in Rome.

American and foreign film crews have come to Hawaii to tap the historic and heroic story that local reporters have covered for decades to express the essence of a priest who served leprosy victims for 16 years until he died of the disease himself in Kalaupapa, Molokai, the place of banishment.

“;He was that type of man of action, bull-headed, strong-willed, high-minded,”; wrote Ambrose Hutchison, a patient who was the government's superintendent at the settlement.

“;He was just and loyal with everyone. He was impartial with all without exceptions,”; said Pohaku Melemai, who met the priest as a child and lived to give testimony about him in 1938 when Catholic Church officials began to take official notes with an eye to the sainthood process.

Joseph Manu, a resident of Pelekunu Valley near Kalaupapa, described his friend as a simple, prayerful man who was satisfied with “;a bit of taro, a piece of fish and a glass of water.”;

Manu's words were grasped by the authors as the title for their new book, which tells the story of Father Damien in the voices of people who knew him.

Anwei Skinsnes Law and her husband, Henry G. Law, tapped the archives of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Rome, an unpublished manuscript by Hutchison, personal letters, church and Hawaii state archives and state Board of Health records.

Anwei Law said: “;Listening to the reflections of the people of Kalaupapa who knew Father Damien ... reveals a great deal about him. Interviewed as witnesses when the cause of Father Damien was being initiated by the Catholic Church in the 1930s, they reflected on his great love for God and for the people of Kalaupapa, his prayerfulness, his humility, his patience, his simplicity, his strength of character and his sense of justice.”;

In 1873, the year Damien went to Kalaupapa, 477 people were sent there, of whom 466 were identified as Hawaiian, as were most of the patients quoted in the book. An estimated 90 percent of the 8,000 people who died there over the century of quarantine were Hawaiian. They make the story of Kalaupapa a deeply significant chapter of Hawaiian history.

Hearing the history from firsthand witnesses, “;you understand the difficulties of life there, the harsh weather, the lack of food and water, and especially the loneliness and injustice of being separated from families,”; said Anwei Law. “;Some people responded with 'reckless behavior'—as Father Damien called it—but clearly most of the people responded by working together to rebuild lives and form a community that was in great difficulty, yet was characterized by music, generosity, kindness and mutual support.”;

Their shared life, she said, “;reflects the magnificence of the human spirit.”;

Several of the storytellers talked about the ecumenical spirit shared by Damien and Protestant and Mormon leaders, a rare thing in that time.

“;I myself have seen that Calvinists went to Father's house to ask for chickens, eggs, tobacco, sugar, and Father gave freely to them as he gave to Catholics,”; said John Puaina Wilmington. “;Members of the Congregational Protestant Church of Kalaupapa after their prayer meeting came over to the Mission ground in a body and were received and feasted,”; said Hutchison describing an 1882 luau.

Hutchison, who lived in Kalaupapa for 53 years, left a handwritten memoir of Damien that other writers have treasured for its detail.

“;There was nothing supernatural about Father Damien. He was a vigorous, forceful and impellent man with a big kindly heart, in the prime of life and a jack of all trades, carpenter, mason, baker, farmer, medico and nurse, gravedigger.”;

He described sharing simple meals and family reminiscences with the Belgian priest.

Dr. A.A. Mouritz wrote of the depression and grief that Damien experienced when he didn't get the help for patients that he had sought from church and government, when a hoped-for cure for the disease failed to work.

“;Father Damien at times had the delusion, that is the false impression, that he was unworthy of heaven. Little things troubled him and he shed tears, but there was no question of real dejection.”;

“;The sicker he got, the harder he worked,”; Mouritz wrote. “;He wore himself out working, overtaxing his human strength to do God's work.”;

Anwei Law said, “;People focused a lot on how much he prayed and taught the boys to pray. David Ilihia talks about him always praying to God and this was the source of his strength and courage. Mele Meheula refers to him as a 'holy man.' This is a constant theme.”;

The authors, former Hawaii residents now living in New York state, are conducting research at the Hawaii State Archives to compile a list of the more than 8,000 people who were sent to Kalaupapa. It will be available for online research and will be a resource for creation of a monument to those people, including Damien De Veuster.

“;We also wanted to look at Father Damien's legacy in the context of current discussions related to leprosy and human rights,”; said Law. “;We believe that the discussion of human rights is the bridge that links the past with the present.”;

THE BOOK

;  “;Father Damien: A Bit of Taro, a Piece of Fish, and a Glass of Water”;

» By Henry G. and Anwei Skinsnes Law

» Published by the IDEA Center for the Voices of Humanity

» Price: $25

» A reception for the authors and book-signing will be held 3 to 5 p.m. next Sunday, Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii, Ward Warehouse.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Both are founding members of Ka Ohana o Kalaupapa.

» Henry G. Law: Former National Park Service superintendent of Kalaupapa National Historical Park

» Anwei Skinsnes Law: International coordinator of IDEA—the International Association for Integrity, Dignity and Economic Advancement—established in 1994 as the first international advocacy agency led primarily by former Hansen's disease patients. She has conducted research on the history of leprosy in Hawaii for 40 years.