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POSTED: Friday, October 09, 2009

ROME » About 2,000 Belgians are expected to join Hawaii residents in seats at St. Peter's Square for the Sunday canonization of Father Damien De Veuster.

The Belgian ambassador to the Vatican began the celebration last night, hosting a gala reception. The guest list included diplomats, government and business leaders and special guests from Hawaii.

Kalaupapa residents were invited, as were Lt. Gov. James “;Duke”; Aiona, who is in Rome for the canonization, and Bishop Larry Silva.

Seven former leprosy patients attended the reception and were singled out for special attention by Belgians who recognize them as a link with Damien.

“;The canonization gives us a chance to renew acquaintances, Belgians and Hawaiians. There are many Belgians who have visited Hawaii and been to Kalaupapa,”; said Joseph Eraly, a descendant of one of Damien's sisters.

“;We know the patients are part of the history of Father Damien,”; Eraly said Sunday after a celebration in the priest's hometown in Belgium.

Several of the patients were in the spotlight ear-lier yesterday at a news conference where they talked about what Damien means to them and told their stories about being forced to leave their families when they contracted the disease.

“;When he came to Kalaupapa, he knew in his heart that he wouldn't leave us,”; said Gloria Marks. “;He became one of our culture. My husband and I named our oldest son Damien, and we named our business Damien Tours.”;

Richard Marks, who died in December, promoted the cause for sainthood in a private audience with Pope John Paul II 25 years ago.

“;I'm sorry he couldn't be here, and I'm happy I'm still living to see the day,”; she told news reporters from the Associated Press, Catholic News Service and the Fox and ABC television networks.

The reporters listened in rapt attention as Elroy “;Makia”; Malo told about his parents taking him to the Kalihi hospital for leprosy patients in 1947 just days before his 13th birthday. He talked about his first impressions.

“;You see the damaged faces,”; Malo said. “;You see blind people who didn't participate in the community. Years later, I would be blind. I didn't know what the heck to do.”;

Malo, who was a Mormon, said he started drinking: “;I thought it was the best way to face the world.”;

But he underwent training at the Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in Honolulu, became self-sufficient and went to the University of Hawaii, where he earned a bachelor's degree.

Malo taught Hawaiian language, and in recent years he has told his story in Hawaii schools.

;[Preview]    Few Supporters Unable To Witness Damien's Canonization
  ;[Preview]
 

Many supporters of Father Damien's sainthood are in Italy now, with a few notable exceptions.

Watch ]

 

“;My friend Bernard told me about Damien when I first went to Kalaupapa. I said, 'What a dumb guy to come all the way from Europe to catch leprosy.' I was a 13-year-old.

“;I'm older now. I know what it means to sacrifice. I know what he did for us.”;

“;We open our hearts to you,”; he told the news reporters. “;We are proud of who we are. We love our people.”;

About 500 Hawaii people were to attend a Mass at St. Peter's Basilica today with Bishop Silva presiding. They also were scheduled to travel to Assisi, the home of St. Francis, a 13th-century monk who founded the Franciscan order of priests and brothers. It is a link in the pilgrimage for Kalaupapa residents: Franciscan sisters from Syracuse, N.Y., came to Hawaii to care for leprosy patients before Damien's death of the disease in 1889.

Their leader, Mother Marianne Cope, is a candidate for sainthood for her work in Kalaupapa.