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Countdown to canonization


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POSTED: Sunday, October 04, 2009

BRUSSELS, Belgium » Belgian King Albert II and Queen Paola, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium and nearly 400 people visiting from Hawaii are to party together today in festivities at Tremelo, the village where Father Damien De Veuster grew up.

More than 5,000 people are expected at the event that kicks off a week-long celebration of the humble missionary priest's elevation to sainthood.

The royal couple is scheduled to dedicate a new statue of Damien near the farmhouse where he grew up. The home is now a Damien museum, containing many of his possessions, which were taken back to Belgium along with his body in 1936, 47 years after he died.

The visitors from Hawaii have already toured the museum where one of the treasured artifacts is an ornate wooden altar that Damien built. It was the center of the daily Mass he gave during his 16 years as a builder, caregiver and spiritual adviser to people banished to the leprosy settlement on Molokai.

The Hawaii pilgrims said they felt awed and close to Damien as they saw pipes, vestments, a cane and other items he used.

The group from the islands arrived at Brussels Airport yesterday morning. It was a 24-hour trip for 11 former Hansen's disease patients from Kalaupapa, who will attend the canonization of Father Damien next Sunday in Rome. The Kalaupapa contingent includes National Park Service and state employees, including caregivers attending to the former patients who range in age from 68 to 84.

The islanders started the Damien party early, holding an impromptu kanekapila — song fest — in the Continental Airlines hospitality suite at Newark Airport during a six-hour layover. From “;Tiny Bubbles”; to Hawaiian classics to “;Roll Out the Barrel,”; the islanders' high spirits were shared with people scurrying to their flights on the busy concourse outside.

Reporters and photographers greeted the Hawaii contingent at the airport in Brussels, seeking interviews with the former leprosy patients who are a link with Damien and his heroic story. They are among 20 remaining former patients who contracted the disease and were put into quarantine on the isolated Molokai peninsula. After the forced isolation ended in 1969, they chose to remain and are guarantee lifelong care.

Hawaii Catholic Bishop Larry Silva told reporters about how the grave marker of his grandfather, who was sent to Kalaupapa with the disease, was recently identified in a cemetery in the settlement.

Silva and Belgium Cardinal Godfried Danneels were to preside at a Mass at the Tremelo festival today.

Bernadette Borges, a retired city employee, made the trip with her daughter Patricia Miyashiro and granddaughter Taylor Ann Miyashiro, a fourth-grader at St. Anthony School in Kailua.

Taylor Ann is taking photographs, interviewing fellow pilgrims and observing events all of which will translate into unique homework projects for school when she gets home.