Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Hero's Day

How Are YOU today, Friend?

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"All men whilst they are awake are in one common world:
but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own."

Father Damien & Choir

"His cassock was worn and faded, his hair tumbled like a school-boy’s, his hands stained and hardened by toil; but the glow of health was in his face, the buoyancy of youth in his manner; while his ringing laugh, his ready sympathy, and his inspiring magnetism told of one who in any sphere might do a noble work, and who in that which he has chosen is doing the noblest of all works. This was Father Damien."

Charles Warren Stoddard, who visited Kalawao in 1884

“Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground."
Oscar Wilde

Damien Statue outside Hawaii State Capitol

“Sainthood emerges when you can listen to someone's tale of woe and not respond with a description of your own.”
Andrew V. Mason

“The saints are the sinners who keep on going”
Robert Louis Stevenson

He was born at Tremelo in Belgium, January 3rd, 1840, the son of a farmer-merchant. When his oldest brother entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, it was decided that he, Joseph, would take charge of the family business. But nineteen year old Joseph had other plans, entering the same religious house as his brother at Louvain, in 1859. It was there he took the name of Damien.

In 1863, his brother was to leave for mission work in the Hawaiian Islands, but became ill. Damien obtained permission from the Superior General, to take his brother's place, arriving here in our Honolulu on March 19th, 1864 after a four month voyage. He was ordained to the priesthood the following May 21st at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace. Considered a bit "green" he was sent to rural Kaneohe on Oahu's windward side to study and pray, riding his horse over the historic Pali. Eventually, he served 10 years as a "country missionary" on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Around this time, the Royal Hawaiian Government enacted a very harsh law aimed at stopping the spread of "leprosy," or "Mai Pake," (the "Chinese Disease) as the Hawaiians called it. Those so diagnosed were summarily deported to the Kalawao settlement on Moloka'i's remote Kalaupapa Peninsula. Backed by sheer cliffs, Kalawao had been an isolated Hawaiian village. Now her residents were forced to relocate, and soon the mournful voyages from Honolulu commenced. To separate a Hawaiian from his family, from his community, was itself a grave punishment. To send him into exile with only a few meagre possessions, to order him to swim ashore from the ship as it wallowed offshore, there to fall into the hands of other desperate outcasts, must have been a descent into hell. Imagine that you have lost everyone and everything you ever knew because of a red, itchy patch on your skin. And at the end of your sad journey, to see the ravaged faces taking your measure, to feel the fingerless hands reach out - not to help you ashore, but to grab desperately for the few possessions and mementos you have managed to bring so far. What you saw was your own hideous future; this was a place to die. New wahine (women) were mobbed and claimed. Some folks survived only a few days, succumbing to despair, the elements, or violence. A few brave people called Kokua ("Helpers") accompanied an afflicted friend or family member to this hell. But it was mostly survival of every person for himself.

Church people were concerned about the abandoned "lepers" but the Catholic Bishop, Louis Maigret, did not want to send anyone "in the name of obedience," such an order meaning certain death. Nevertheless, four Brothers volunteered to take turns visiting and assisting the "lepers" in their distress. Damien was the first to leave on May 10th, 1873. At his own request and that of the lepers, he was permitted to remain permanently on Molokai. With no shelter, Damian first slept in the sand under a Hala tree. This was not "camping!" More than 1,000 people had been sent to Kalawao by the 1870s. The average life span of someone exiled to the peninsula was four years. Damien used his skills as a carpenter to create new structures out of supplies he demanded from health officials in Honolulu. The chapel he built had holes in her floor for the patients to expectorate into. He cleansed their wounds, listened to them, prayed with them, and gave them back their dignity. He built their coffins, and he buried them.
Ultimately, Damien and the patients built themselves an authentic community. He spent 16 years at Kalaupapa. Sadly, he could not escape the disease that afflicted his flock, and died "one of us" in 1889.

By the time of his death, Damien was being assisted by others, including Mother Marianne Cope, a Franciscan nun from upstate New York who spent 30 years on the peninsula and was also buried there.

In 1915, Alice Ball, a young student at the University of Hawai'i, contributed groundbreaking research toward treatment of the disease. A chemist, she identified compounds in the oil of the chaulmoogra tree that were used to develop a treatment that was relied upon until sulfone drugs rendered the disease non-contagious in the 1940s. Despite sulfone, people were still exiled in Kalaupapa until 1969. These days, fewer than 25 elderly patients live in the settlement. They choose to remain in the only community they have ever known. Their memories, and the graves of their fellows are there.

Today, 11 of the remaining, elderly patients are among the 528 Hawaii residents in Vatican City for the elevation to Sainthood of our friend Damien.

Audrey Toguchi, 81-year-old high school teacher from Aiea, Oahu is among them. Her spontaneous elimination of aggressive lung cancer, after praying for Damien's intercession, was one of the miracles attributed to him by the church, clearing the way to sainthood. Several of the traveling group are non-catholics, including husband Mr. Toguchi, a Buddhist. In Hawaii we are more than tolerant, we celebrate and even worship together. I don't think one needs be a catholic to be moved by Damien's example.

My heart is full as my eyes.

So let us extend our Aloha to those we have exiled from our hearts,

the "others" the "different"

whose fearsome visage threatens our comfort.

When we embrace the unlovely in others,

it is our own ugliness that softens

into heavenly beauty.

Alan Brenert's wonderful novel, Molokai is set in the amazing community discussed in this post. Read my review at:

A L O H A to all of us, my Friend!



Fr. Damien died on April 15th, 1889, having served sixteen years among the lepers. His mortal remains were transferred in 1936 to Belgium where he was interred in the crypt of the church of the Congregation of Sacred Hearts at Louvain. In 1938 the process for his beatification was introduced at Malines (Belgium): Pope Paul VI signed the Decree on the "heroicity of his virtues" on July 7th 1977. In 1995, Father Damien was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Brussels.