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Molokai to have St. Damien Church


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POSTED: Saturday, October 10, 2009

A down-home drama will be staged on Molokai today in sync with the pageantry unfolding in Rome 12 hours away.

The Catholic parish in Kaunakakai will be renamed St. Damien Church as soon as Pope Benedict XVI declares the sainthood of the missionary to Molokai. Signs were erected days ago, covered with canvas, awaiting the moment.

The unveiling will be a highlight of late-night festivities as Catholic and non-Catholic residents of the Friendly Isle gather to watch the live broadcast of the canonization in St. Peter's Square tonight.

The celebration will start with the usual Saturday evening Mass at the church, formerly known as St. Sophia's. Then people will pass the time with a potluck supper and bingo until the show begins in Rome. Youngsters will perform portions of the one-man play “;Damien,”; by Aldyth Morris.

“;We'll have one big screen up in the church ... and another outside for people who don't want to be that prayerful,”; said the Rev. Clyde Guerreiro, pastor of the consolidated parish covering all of “;topside”; Molokai, the common description that distinguishes the 630-square-mile island from the 4-square-mile Kalaupapa peninsula at the foot of the 2,000-foot North Shore sea cliffs.

Nowhere is Damien's name more fitting, given that the church where he served at Kalaupapa is a historic site that cannot be renamed.

Damien built four churches topside, two of which are still standing. He built Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Church in Kaluaaha in 1874 and St. Joseph Church in Kamalo in 1876.

“;You can't understand Damien unless you know his role on topside,”; Guerreiro said. He and the Rev. Felix Vandebroek, the pastor in Kalaupapa, are members of the same religious order as Damien, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

For Damien, church building meant hands-on carpentry as well as baptizing people to fill the building. He frequently traversed the steep switchback trail up from the leprosy settlement, evidence of his vigor when he volunteered for Kalaupapa. It is also a testament to his stubbornness and single-mindedness; Damien decided church-building was reason to violate the government rule against leaving the settlement.

“;There's a lot of excitement up here,”; Guerreiro said. “;It has brought energy to the whole Molokai community.”; Several topside residents are employed in Kalaupapa by the state or National Park Service.

The celebratory mood at St. Damien parish lingers beyond one night. At a recent parish meeting, members were elated to hear that they had reached $1.9 million of the $3 million goal to build a new parish center. It gave them the go-ahead to pursue government permits and development of the planned worship space for 400 people, classrooms, conference rooms and socializing areas. “;Our goal is to say Mass Christmas Eve 2011 in the new church,”; the pastor said.

More than 1,000 of Molokai's 7,000 residents are nominally Catholic, but about only about 200 can be found in the pews on a Sunday, he said. “;My goal is not to build churches, but to fill churches.”;

The capital campaign was a success thanks to contributions from afar. Bearing the name of America's new saint whose story is known around the world can't hurt. The church advertises in Catholic newspapers around the country, and “;people from the mainland are surprisingly generous,”; Guerreiro said. There are hits from around the world on the parish Web page, damienchurchmolokai.org.