Quantcast
StarBulletin.com

Story told through personal items


By

POSTED: Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The story of Father Damien De Veuster can be told through the small collection of his possessions and correspondence held in a storage room at the Sacred Hearts Center in Kaneohe and in photographs in church, state and private collections.

His life's story could begin with:

» A formal portrait of a solemn young seminarian yet to leave on a mission to Hawaii.

» A silver-plated chalice — a gift from parishioners in Bordeaux, France.

» A wooden mallet, plane and other handmade carpentry tools.

Joseph De Veuster was not the scholar that his older brother, Auguste, was.

His parents wanted the sturdy Belgian peasant boy — adept at the physical labors of repairing buildings, planting and managing animals — to take on the family farming business. They were forced to reconsider in the face of his zealousness to do God's work and his stubborn insistence on getting his way.

He followed his brother, who became Father Pamphile, into the seminary of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. His teachers and religious leaders assessed him as a candidate for working brother, suited for physical labor and not capable of academic challenges: theology, philosophy and Latin.

With his brother's tutoring, he struggled through, learning the liturgical Latin that he would use at the altar even at the farthest corner of the world in Molokai.

In the custom of taking a saint's name when making the vows of religious life, he chose the name of Damien after a third-century physician and martyr, a prophetic name for his future.

» A tattered breviary of daily prayers and scriptural readings.

» An ivory chasuble with gold threads — the outer vestment worn by a priest for Mass.

» Small, round-lensed spectacles in a leather case.

Pamphile was called up for an assignment in the mission field of Oceania, but typhus grounded him. Damien, going over the head of local superiors, obtained permission of the general superior to take his brother's place.

He arrived in Hawaii in March 1863 after a five-month voyage. After a year of study at the Catholic seminary Ahuimanu College, he was ordained in May 1864 at Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in downtown Honolulu.

He spent nine years on Hawaii island, in the rugged Kohala and Hamakua areas, a circuit-riding pastor on horseback. He taught the Gospel and baptized people and honed his carpentry skills by building churches. He learned the Hawaiian language and grew in his role as a nurturing “;father”; to his flock.

By 1872, when Catholic Bishop Louis Maigret sought priests to volunteer for Kalawao, Damien had seen many of his flock stricken with leprosy and torn from their families.

On May 10, 1873, he arrived in the leprosy settlement. The healthy, energetic man found weak and despairing people who needed medical care, shelter, food and protection against bullies who prevailed in the lawless society of a land of no hope. There was sporadic oversight by government officials and no medical personnel in the settlement in his earliest years.

» A ledger documenting baptisms beginning within days of his arrival in Kalawao.

» A pipe, the tool to overcome, or at least tolerate, the stink of infectious sores.

» A square nail from construction of St. Philomena Church.

In his 16 years on the Kalaupapa peninsula, Damien was the engine for change as he filled the role of spiritual adviser, nurse, supplies purveyor and human rights advocate, while building homes, schools, churches and coffins.

In letters and exchanges with Board of Health officials, his religious superiors in Honolulu and in France, merchants providing supplies and philanthropists sending donations, the priest was the voice of the residents for years. He demanded, cajoled and scolded to get the food, lumber, bandages and clothing they needed. His presence and his incessant demands compelled officials to take a role beyond abandoning people to die. He often wrote asking for another priest to come and hear the confession of the cantankerous, stubborn pastor who broke the quarantine law when he hiked to topside Molokai to build churches. He told his family he was happy with his unfortunate people.

Photographs from the 1880s tell the story of his success in turning chaos into a community: a village of tidy white cottages. People posed in their best clothes. A horseback procession when Queen Kapiolani and Princess Liliuokalani visited. The portrait of a man, posed with a flair in shiny boots and fitted clothing; a man with self-esteem despite features disfigured by disease. Damien sitting amidst a field of schoolchildren.

» A guava wood cane.

» A swath of red brocade cloth, from the sling he wore to support an arm weakened by leprosy as it took its course in his body.

» The copy of a sketch by English artist Edward Clifford: the aging priest in the rumpled black-brimmed hat, his face reflecting age, good humor and disfigurement from disease. It's an image other artists have repeated through the years.

» The deathbed photo of Damien on April 15, 1889. He was 49. It was 26 years after the handsome young seminarian posed for his graduation photograph.