Damien celebrations draw to a close


POSTED: Sunday, November 08, 2009

The party yesterday was held in honor of the hometown hero, but for the village of Kalaupapa, it was also a celebration of its unique self.

About 400 visitors were invited to the remote Molokai settlement for the finale of a monthlong observance of the sainthood of Damien De Veuster.

The settlement, population 90, hasn't entertained a crowd that size since 1995, when another celebration of Damien's care and compassion for leprosy patients isolated at Kalaupapa was held after his beatification.

With the settlement separated from the rest of Molokai by steep cliffs, and an airport served daily by only two scheduled flights of a nine-seater aircraft, it's not easy to gather family and friends for a party.

A total of 44 flights of chartered aircraft shuttled people into the airport and out again after ceremonies highlighted by an open-air Mass outside Damien's church at the Kalawao end of the peninsula and a luau at the McVeigh community hall, a historical gathering place in Kalaupapa village.

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Thirteen women in the Kalaupapa hula halau danced to a song, “;St. Damien,”; after the Mass. The lineup was a reflection of the unique population—former leprosy patients, Department of Health employees and National Park Service workers, wearing white muumuus much like those seen in historic 19th-century photographs of residents during Damien's time.

Dancers Charlotte LaCroix, a nurse, and Maile Antone, a housekeeper, came to Kalaupapa for jobs and stayed because it feels like home. “;I would never have thought God would put me here; it's like a calling,”; said Antone, formerly of Kaneohe.

“;It's home; the patients are family,”; said LaCroix, formerly of North Dakota, who will be forced to move away when she retires next month after 19 years on duty. There's a rule that only the 20 remaining former patients and other people with a job there may live in Kalaupapa.

Jean Shimose of Hilo came to renew family ties. Former Health Department employee B.J. Wong, now of Hilo, shared stories about Shimose's uncle Kenso Seki, who died 11 years ago.

Seki was sent to Kalawao in 1928 and was present when Damien's body was moved from his grave in 1936 for reburial in his Belgian homeland. “;He would tell the story of seeing Damien's body when the coffin was opened,”; Wong said. “;He told me the body was not corrupt; it was whole and unmarked. He had great stories.”;

Pam Metzger and Alice Secor of Kailua arrived a day early and were put to work mopping St. Philomena Church and dusting the pews. Cleaning work and other chores for patients have been part of their trips to Kalaupapa for more than 20 years. They visit Kalaupapa four times a year with other members of St. John Vianney Church choir to sing for holiday services.

“;I've been blessed to come here so many years. ... It's been quite a journey,”; she said, recalling the canonization pilgrimage shared by 500 islanders. “;After all the fancy places we were, this is coming home.”;

Recent refurbishing of the church partially built by Damien was led by Richard Miller, a historic preservation specialist with the National Park Service, who stood at the door to tell visitors about it. His crew matched paints, lime mortar and stucco used by the 19th-century builders.

“;This is kind of a grand building for the time and location,”; Miller said. “;The high vaulted ceiling was remarkable.”;

Miller had worked on the White House, Harper's Ferry and other restoration projects before coming to Kalaupapa seven years ago. “;I liked it here enough to stop traveling,”; he said.

The large crowd put the National Park Service into logistics overdrive. Rangers from Big Island and Maui parks were brought in to help the 40 Kalaupapa National Historic Park staff. The Federal Aviation Administration set up a temporary control center, extra Maui police and fire department personnel were called in, and the Health Care Association of Hawaii brought in doctors and emergency medical service technicians.

Kalaupapa resident Clarence “;Boogie”; Kahilihiwa, a former patient, told a few friends that now that the celebration is ended, he will have time to reflect on the journal he kept on the trip to Damien's home in Belgium and the Oct. 11 canonization in Rome.

He wrote notes about things he saw, “;who I met, things people said to me,”; he said. “;I appreciate the friendships, and the culture and the values. When I read it back, for a moment I'm there.

“;It will take a while to absorb, and I'll be thinking about it. Today's not the end.”;