Father Joe Hendriks told me, "I consider Damien to be a lifetime friend."
Honolulu Star Bulletin: Nov. 15th. - It was a spark amidst rambling summertime conversations with the retired Catholic priest. The interviews were an exercise in a continuing look into the story of Father Damien DeVeuster, whose service to some of God's humblest, neediest people has been the subject of hero stories since he lived and died in Kalaupapa in 1889. Father Joe was one of hundreds of men who chose to become priests because of the example of Damien. Like the 19th-century priest, Hendriks was born in Belgium and came to Hawaii as a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a missionary order that has provided pastors and teachers to Hawaii since the first French Catholic priests stepped ashore in 1827. Here this story swerves off track, becoming all about Damien, who is on the short list to be named a saint by the Catholic Church, probably by next year at this time. Or, off we go on a tangent about the Catholic pioneers and the role of faith in the lives of people in his times and ours. That's how the conversations went with Father Joe. He wasn't at ease talking about himself. He prepared a list of dates in his personal time line. If prodded, he'd philosophize in brief. He was a little bit better with anecdotes. What he did say was that he would not live to see Damien canonized. And he was right. Father Joe Hendriks died Nov. 3 at the St. Patrick Monastery in Kaimuki after years of battling cancer. If he had had his choice, he would have lived out his life as pastor in Kalaupapa, the job he held for seven years until the disease -- and his superiors -- forced him to retire to Honolulu in 2006.
Hendriks spent 57 of his 86 years in service at parishes on Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Lanai. The pinnacle of his vocation was walking in Damien's footsteps on the remote peninsula where leprosy patients were exiled. When Hendriks said Mass, there were former leprosy patients in the congregation, along with people from the state Department of Health and National Park Service who maintain the settlement. The rectory and St. Francis Church were built after Damien died and the population shifted from the east to west side. But the church that Damien built, St. Philomena's Church in Kalawao, is still the scene of services on special occasions. "The door was open at the rectory. Father Joe welcomed people inside his house," said Meli Watanuki, who with her husband, Randy, tends the altar and church. "Sometimes we'd go talk story to him. He was really good to us, to all the patients." "He loved to entertain people," she said, and the parish hall became the scene of community celebrations for church feast days and people's birthdays. She recalled how Hendriks, almost daily, welcomed visitors from around the world to the church. He told about Damien and Mother Marianne Cope to people who came on a day trip, escorted to several spots by Damien Tours guides. Hendriks said he received about 200 Christmas cards each year from people who had visited.
Watanuki holds another memory of Hendriks from the day in 2005 when Cope's exhumed remains were taken out of Kalaupapa. The bones of the Franciscan nun, also a candidate for sainthood for serving patients in Kalaupapa, are now enshrined at Franciscan headquarters in Syracuse, N.Y. "When they put the box on a truck in front of the church, he stood by the step and he cried. He was a soft heart," Watanuki said. Patrick Downes, editor of the Catholic Herald, said Hendriks provided some of the best items ever for the parish news roundup in each edition. "They were personal, affectionate notes about parishioners, or anecdotes about people visiting from far away who were called by Damien," he said. "He typed them on his old manual typewriter, with pencil corrections, and mailed them. Every one was a tidbit of life from Kalaupapa."
When he was ordained in 1948, much of Belgium's missionary zeal was aimed toward the Congo, its colony. But he and a handful of classmates were picked for Hawaii. "God has taken care of me my whole life," he said. Many of the others were homesick serving so far from their European roots, but "God made it easy for me; I was never homesick." He became a naturalized U.S. citizen five years after he arrived. Though fluent in English, he never lost the guttural Belgian accent. While he was pastor of St. Patrick Church in 1976, Hendriks created a small Damien museum, opening up the monastery chapel to give visitors a look at the few artifacts that were kept there: Mass vestments, Communion chalice, a pipe. The museum was expanded and moved to the Waikiki parish for access by tourists. It has since been closed.
People already know what Damien did, so why bother with the bureaucratic business it takes to declare him a saint? "It's a way for people of this century to hear about him," he said. "Hopefully people will be inspired and say, 'That's the way to be. He's for sure in heaven, and I want to be there, too." A miraculous healing ascribed to Damien's intercession with God was the final criterion to achieve sainthood, but, Hendriks was asked, why didn't God heal the leprosy victims or the priests who served them? "Getting well on earth is not our purpose. To get to heaven is more important," the pastor said. "If you pray for something and nothing happens, God may have different answers. "There are many miracles in our lives. I believe God will take care of us without our expectations. "To pray is not to tell God what you want, blah blah blah, it's to be in God's presence. The number of words doesn't make it a prayer; it's to love God with your whole heart. ... That's the spirit of prayer." Bishop Larry Silva will preside at the funeral Mass for Hendriks at 11 a.m. next Saturday at St. Patrick Church.
By Mary Adamski
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