Thursday, June 11, 2009

Father Damien's life a timely teaching tool

In classrooms across the state, the canonization of Father Damien is being used as a history-in-the-making lesson to teach kids everything from the importance of helping others to the complicated protocols involved when someone is considered for sainthood. And teachers say the story of Damien, who served Hansen's disease patients on Moloka'i, is captivating their young audiences, so used to reading about famous names who lived long ago and far away. "He's a state hero," said Michael Weaver, principal of the high school division at Damien Memorial School in Kalihi. "This is not somebody you're reading about in a textbook who lived thousands of years ago across the world."

Damien School, named after the Catholic priest, will include a section on Damien in its upcoming summer orientation for freshmen coming in from other schools. Though the summer orientation has always discussed Damien, this year's instruction on the priest will be expanded in anticipation of his October canonization — the declaration of Damien as a saint. And it will culminate with a trip to the state Capitol to visit the Damien statue and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, where Damien was ordained.

At other schools, Damien has been incorporated into all sorts of lessons:

  • At Moloka'i High School and several other public schools, the Catholic priest is being discussed in-depth in Hawaiian studies classes, with students learning about his service and the lives of the Hansen's disease patients whom he helped. Manuwai Peters, lead teacher in the Hawaiian language immersion program at Moloka'i High, said students this semester studied the oral histories of patients. Next semester, students will write chants to commemorate his canonization and will study the history of Kalaupapa, including before Damien arrived.
  • Sacred Hearts Academy in Kaimuki has developed a curriculum on Father Damien for students, and in September will invite alumna Audrey Toguchi to speak to classrooms. Toguchi saw her aggressive form of cancer cured after praying to Damien a decade ago. Her cure was the second miracle attributed to Damien, which assured his elevation to sainthood.
  • St. Anthony and St. John Vianney schools in Kailua are incorporating Damien into an educational grant they received aimed at enhancing learning through technology. The grant will give teachers the chance, said St. Anthony Principal Bridget Olsen, to use new ways to talk about Damien. Some of the ideas for the coming semester include discussing Hansen's disease in science classrooms and studying the lives of Hawaiians during Damien's time.
  • "We're trying to look at topics to go across the entire curriculum," Olsen said.

    other schools

    Though the emphasis on Damien has been strongest at Catholic schools, many non-Catholic schools are also teaching students about the priest or planning events around his canonization. Kamehameha Schools Maui campus Chaplain Kalani Wong said he uses Damien as an example of how "we can all be servants to people." Every year, Wong takes students to Kalaupapa for a service project and teaches them about Damien's life. This year, he's also been talking to students about the process of becoming a saint.

    The Rev. Damien de Veuster, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts priest known worldwide for his service to the Hansen's disease patients in Kalaupapa until his death from the disease in 1889, will be elevated to sainthood Oct. 11 in Rome. Only eight others from what is now American soil have received the high honor from the Catholic Church.

    Carmen Himenes, superintendent of Hawai'i Catholic schools, said Damien — the first person from the Islands to become a saint — fascinates students because of his compelling story and his local connection. "It makes sense to them because it happened here," she said. The Catholic Diocese of Honolulu has developed lesson plans on Damien for Catholic schools. Plans are available for all grade levels, and range from coloring books for younger kids to study guides on Damien's life and times for older students. Himenes said the lessons share a common theme — that everyone can do something to help the less fortunate. "You just start small," Himenes said.

    At St. Patrick School in Kaimuki, Damien has been talked about in just about every classroom throughout the school year: First-graders made posters to depict Damien's life and fifth-graders wrote journal entries as they learned about his childhood in Belgium and journey to Hawai'i. In an eighth-grade class, students made newspapers and wrote articles about Damien and discussed the long and involved process before someone becomes a saint.

    path to sainthood

    The petition for Damien's sainthood was formally introduced in 1955. Forty years later, Damien was beatified — the final big step before someone is elevated to sainthood. Then, in 2008, his canonization was secured after a second miracle was attributed to him. The date of Damien's canonization was announced Feb. 21. Kendra Masunaga, who teaches seventh- and eighth-graders at the school, said her students have taken pride in knowing one of Hawai'i's own is going to become a saint. And his story, she added, hits home for them because he was just a normal man "who did something incredible." She added, "They're already calling him Saint Damien."

    On a recent weekday, St. Patrick sixth-grader Andrew Wong showed off a black composition book that he used to jot down his thoughts on Damien through the year. He said he was struck by Damien's selflessness and the sacrifices he made for others. He was also pretty surprised that someone from Hawai'i is being elevated to sainthood. "We're such a small place," he said. "I was amazed he was chosen."

    By Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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