The Father Damien statue fronting the state Capitol was draped in leis on May 10, the feast day of Blessed Damien in the Catholic calendar.

Scrutiny of miracle delays
Damien’s sainthood case

Evidence of a woman cured of cancer
could make the priest a saint

The sainthood cause of Father Damien DeVeuster, the 19th-century missionary who worked with leprosy victims in Kalaupapa, has hit a snag.


Father Damien: He was declared "blessed" in 1995 after one miracle was credited to him

A Vatican department has sent the case back to a Hawaii Catholic church commission for further scrutiny of an Oahu woman's spontaneous cancer cure, which could be the "miracle" required before the church officially names the priest a saint.

Sister Helene Wood, who leads the cause locally, said the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome suspended its review of the case. It instructed the Rev. Emilio Vega Garcia, postulator of the Damien cause, to seek more specific testimony that the woman "attributed her cure to Damien."

"Father Emilio has said we will have to reopen the case because we need to get very clear and more positive testimony from the witnesses that her prayers were to Damien, her belief was that Damien interceded for her cure," Wood said.

The seven-member diocesan tribunal that collected testimony two years ago is likely to tackle the new task as soon as next month, she said. Vega Garcia, a Rome-based member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, to which Damien belonged, will be here in February.

Wood said: "It doesn't dishearten me. We were hoping it would have gone through without any hitches. It doesn't take away from the holiness of the man."

But Kalaupapa resident Kuulei Bell expressed dismay at the delay and concern that the cause might be derailed if not accomplished during the reign of ailing Pope John Paul II, who has moved Damien and hundreds of other church heroes along the bureaucratic track to recognition as saints.

"A lot of us are getting old, including the pope," Bell said. "We want to live to see this happen."

Bell was among a delegation of Kalaupapa residents who attended the June 1995 ceremony in Damien's homeland of Belgium when the pope declared the priest "blessed," the second of three steps to sainthood.

"I remember when I came back, I wrote to the pope asking him to please hurry it along so the patients could be alive to see Father Damien become a saint," Bell said. "We love Damien; he is still alive to us."

More than 8,000 people were banished to the remote Molokai peninsula after the disease, now called Hansen's disease, became epidemic in the 1850s. Forced quarantine did not end until 1969 after sulfone drugs were developed to control it. Fewer than 40 people, who were among the quarantined patients, are still Kalaupapa residents.

Father Damien died of the disease in 1889 after working at Kalaupapa for 16 years. Local Catholics direct prayers to him to intercede with God on their behalf, explained a local priest.

One of Damien's fans is an Oahu educator who was diagnosed with cancer in both lungs in September 1998. Dr. Walter Chang, a Honolulu surgeon, documented her "spontaneous regression of cancer," backed up by X-rays, in the October 2000 edition of the Hawaii Medical Journal. Chang told the Star-Bulletin in March 2003 that the woman "had absolutely no treatment, not even diet."

She wrote to Pope John Paul II that she attributed her cure to her prayers, which included a visit to Damien's grave site. Church and medical officials have respected the woman's request for privacy.

Wood said the woman will be interviewed again, as will doctors who saw her, priests who counseled her, and family and friends for insight into her faith and belief in Damien.

The Catholic Church's process of making a saint has evolved from a time when legendary figures were accepted with little review to the modern bureaucratic process of scrutiny by historians and theologians. One verified miracle is required for beatification, and a second miracle for the final canonization.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II approved the investigation into an 1895 incident. The case involved a French nun who was dying of an intestinal illness but, after prayer, recovered and lived for 32 years.

Although the story of Damien gained worldwide attention even during his life, with writer Robert Louis Stevenson one of his earliest fans, the sainthood cause languished without attention for decades, in part because of politics in the Sacred Hearts religious order, which wanted its founder to be named a saint first.

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