In the footsteps of Father Damien

A pilgrimage that includes
a Vatican envoy visits a
historic Kalawao church


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

» A Page A1 photo Sunday of the Vatican ambassador to the United States visiting Kalaupapa included Franciscan Sister Frances Cabrini Morishige, who was incorrectly identified as Sister Candida Oroc in the caption.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin strives to make its news report fair and accurate. If you have a question or comment about news coverage, call Editor Frank Bridgewater at 529-4791 or email him at corrections@starbulletin.com.

A bishop and an archbishop walked in Father Damien's footsteps yesterday.

The men said Mass in the small Molokai church where Damien served as shepherd to his flock of leprosy victims more than 100 years ago.

The Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, is in Hawaii for the ordination of the new Catholic Bishop Clarence Silva.

He and Bishop Allen Vigneron, head of the Oakland, Calif., diocese, moved from the ordination pageantry Thursday to a day of pilgrimage in remote Kalaupapa.

They were accompanied by a group of priests and parishioners from the Oakland diocese as they visited historic sites in the peninsula, which was a place of banishment for victims of the disease.

Sister Candida Oroc greeted Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the Vatican's ambassador to the United States, upon his arrival yesterday at Kalaupapa Airport with Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland, center; the Rev. Lane Akiona, right; and other priests. The visit included a Mass in honor of Father Damien, shown at top, who devoted his life to helping leprosy patients.

At the end of a rugged gravel road -- a 10-mile-per-hour experience -- they found a small crowd gathered in the tiny wooden church that the 19th-century priest built. Residents relish a special event and visitors of this stature don't come often. The Mass was attended by members of the community's Protestant and Mormon congregations, as well as Catholics, who had decked the church with bouquets, distracting attention from the paint hanging in tatters from the ceiling.

The visitors talked about their common memory as Catholic school children hearing the story of heroic Damien. They expressed awe at putting the story into context: the daunting boundaries of sea and 2,000 foot cliffs, the quiet and serenity of the windblown, deserted Kalawao end.

"I just can't imagine what it meant to be sent here, isolated here for your whole life," said Juana Bothe of Walnut Creek, Calif.

"Imagine such a small place and it produced two saints," said their host, the Rev. Joseph Hendriks. The Catholic pastor of the settlement provided anecdotes that weren't in their schoolbooks, and recent news about the beatification of Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, who brought nuns from New York in 1883 to care for the patients. Both have been declared "blessed" in the second of three steps in the church's sainthood process.

Bishop Allen Vigneron conducted Mass for Kalaupapa residents yesterday at Kalawao's St. Philomena Church, which was built by Father Damien. Kalaupapa patient Meli Watanuki received communion, watched by deacon Bill Bothe.

After Mass at St. Philomena Church in Kalawao, lunch was served at Kalaupapa in the parish hall. The Rev. Lane Akiona and Paul Harada were among those enjoying lunch.

Vigneron said: "We don't make saints, God does that. We recognize their holiness. Everyone needs heroes. Kids who play basketball or baseball seek heroes, models for what they could be. We can say, if God did this in Damien and in Mother Marianne, imagine what he can do in you and me.

"I wish I could be half the priest he was," said Vigneron of Damien. "I was impressed by his love and his boldness."

The Rev. George Mockel, vicar general in Oakland, said that as an adult he came to appreciate Damien's "sanctity in the midst of his stubbornness ... his orneriness. That gives me hope."

They were surprised and a little shy to be having personal encounters with several former Hansen's Disease patients who still live in Kalaupapa. Jacqueline Compton, an Oakland diocese secretary, and Henry Nalaielua discussed painting, an avocation they have in common. "I never expected the chance to meet patients," she said.

"Meeting patients is one more way to be in connection with Father Damien and Mother Marianne," said Vigneron.

Residents pitched in to help "Father Joe" entertain the special guests, providing a typically eclectic island potluck lunch in the St. Francis Church parish hall. Also typical of Kalaupapa is that everyone is welcome whenever there's a party, so the crowd grew, joined by National Park Service staffers, off-duty nurses and people who didn't make it to the Mass.

The papal nuncio, who has clearly dined in finer circumstances, led the line to the buffet and served himself potato salad and a turkey tortilla wrap. He chatted with residents and had numerous questions about Hawaii for Hendriks and the Rev. Lane Akiona of Oahu, but he refused to be interviewed by reporters.

Franciscan Sister Candida Oroc of Kauai considered her timing "blessed." She had just arrived for a one-week retreat, seeking silence and solitude. But she gladly postponed that for a day. She said, "It's inspiring to meet men who work for our Lord in their special positions."

The bishops merit celebrity status but they got the same light touch of reserved friendliness that residents offer all visitors. After all, this is a place that was a movie set six years ago and has been visited by royalty from European countries.

There was some talk on the porch about whether the ambassador's visit trumps the 1995 visit from Belgian Cardinal Godfried Daneels. No one had the bad manners to put the question to the visitors.

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