Father Damien will be officially recognized as a saint Oct. 11, 2009, according to a recent Vatican announcement. His canonization, some 14 years after Pope John Paul II beatified him, may also be a blessing for Molokai, where the Belgian priest spent the last 16 years of his life serving those exiled to its infamous leper colony.
Molokai has been hard hit by the closing in late 2007 of Molokai Ranch, home to two of the island's three hotels, a golf course, cinemas and gas station, all now shuttered, as well the source of important ranching jobs, now lost. One of the few tourist activities widely associated with Molokai is the mule ride down to Kalaupapa, the isolated peninsula where some 8,000 people diagnosed with what the Hawaiians called ma‘i Pākē ("Chinese disease") lived and died. Leprosy is now called Hansen's disease, and Kalaupapa is now a national historic park, with just a handful of former patients living (voluntarily) on site.
But you don't have to ride mules down: You can book package trips from Maui that include ferry tickets and a guided hike down (and then up) a steep, 1,700-foot cliff with more than two dozen switchbacks; it's almost 6 miles round trip. You can also fly to the park, from Oahu and Molokai's "topside" airport in Hoolehua (Ho‘olehua in Hawaiian), or arrange to hike one way and fly the other. Among other sights, you'll see St. Philomena's Church, which Father Damien helped expand, and memorials to the priest and Mother Marianne Cope, who helped Father Damien and expanded his work.
Only Damien Tours, however, is allowed to lead visitors through the site; reservations are required (808-567-6171), children under 16 are not allowed and tours do not run on Sunday. Sadly, the founder of Damien Tours, Kalaupapa resident and self-described "leper" Richard Marks, passed away in 2008, just two months before Father Damien's canonization was announced. I never had the honor of taking a tour with Marks, but you'll find him being interviewed in the 2003 documentary "An Uncommon Kindness: The Father Damien Story."
If you're traveling with kids, can't hike the steep 6-mile round-trip, or happen to be afraid of heights, mules and/or flying, you can still experience Father Damien's legacy on Molokai. A lei-adorned, weathered statue of the priest stands outside St. Joseph's Church in Kamalo (Kamalō) on the island's east side, which he built in 1876; his portrait also hangs inside. The indefatigable priest also built Our Lady of Seven Sorrows in Kaluaaha (Kalua‘aha), where his hat-clad silhouette graces the sign by the road, as well as two more topside chapels that no longer survive.
The two remaining churches can be visited independently, or as part of an all-day, guided van tour offered by Molokai Outdoors. They're part of today's Blessed Damien Catholic Parish, which will change its name to St. Damien Catholic Parish upon his canonization. The new St. Damien Catholic Church in Kaunakakai is expected to open in 2011, when it will replace St. Sophia's and become a focus of topside Damien devotion.
If you can't visit Kalaupapa itself, you should still drive to the end of Highway 47 to Pala'au State Park, which boasts a stunning overlook of Kalaupapa ("the flat leaf") and the tiny town of Kalawao. The sheer green wall -- part of the world's highest ocean cliffs -- rising above the peninsula and the lonely little town below reinforce the sense of isolation and abandonment the residents once felt. Father Damien was not the first person to minister to the leper colony, nor the last, but when he died of Hansen's disease at age 49, after years of labor on the patients' behalf, he came to epitomize all who lay down their life for another's.
So who was Father Damien? Those who responded to my Sunday Quiz on Feb. 22 correctly responded that he was born Jozef de Veuster (also written "Joseph de Veuster") in Belgium, in 1840. (Congrats to Vivian Ho of Palo Alto, Carrie Temple of Dixon, Kas Nakamura of Pasadena, Md., Chris Engleman of Boulder, Colo., who will receive a small Hawaii-themed prize.)
Inspired to become a missionary to the "Sandwich Islands" by his older brother, who had hoped to go but became to ill to leave, de Veuster took the name Damien (Damiaan in Flemish, after St. Damianus) during his ordination in Honolulu in 1864. He then served eight years on the Big Island, where he learned to speak Hawaiian while building eight chapels and churches for his parishioners in the Puna, Kohala and Hāmākua districts.
Damien also spent time on Maui, where on May 1, 1873, he learned of the suffering at Kalaupapa from a newspaper article, according to his biography for the Greatest Belgian award ("De Grootste Belg.") Eight days later, he was on a boat to Molokai, and the rest, as they say, is history.
No responsibility or liability shall attach itself to either myself or to the blogspot ‘Mozlink’ for any or all of the articles/images placed here. The placing of an article does not necessarily imply that I agree or accept the contents of the article as being necessarily factual in theology, dogma or otherwise.