Monday, October 26, 2009

Damien Welcomed ‘Home’

A koa case secures a 15-inch-long wooden reliquary that holds a tin box with a bone from Damien’s heel.
Relic arrival ‘unbelievable,’ emotional experience.
The Maui News: KIHEI - Maryanne Majszak was in tears after venerating the St. Damien relic at her parish at St. Theresa Church in Kihei. "I could feel him," she said, unable to say more as her eyes watered up. Patty Holbrook was also in tears at Saturday's relic veneration, although she had yet to pay respects to Hawaii's first saint. "This is unbelievable," said Holbrook, visibly moved. "What Damien did was the life of much more of a saint. . . . He inspired all of us to serve, no matter who we are." Following the Oct. 11 canonization of Father Damien de Veuster to St. Damien, a relic featuring a bone from his right heel has been making the trek from Rome to the U.S. Mainland to the Big Island and now to Maui.

Residents and visitors, Catholic and not, connected with Damien on Saturday, calling him an inspiration of faith and service to mankind. Known to much of the world as Damien the leper, the Sacred Hearts priest worked on Molokai for 16 years during the late 1800s, caring for Hansen's disease patients who were forced to live there. Damien's canonization comes 120 years after his death. He contracted Hansen's disease himself. Maui residents welcomed the Damien relic on the first of a three-day visit around the island with songs, dance, prayers, adoration and veneration. The saint's relic has been secured in a small tin box housed in a 15-inch-long wooden reliquary that travels in a larger koa case.

People at Saturday's relic visitations approached the case in different ways, some genuflecting, others bowing, some touching the case briefly and others placing their palms on it as they prayed in silence. The relic's first stop Saturday was at St. Theresa Church where the parish pastor, the Rev. Monsignor Terry Watanabe, led the congregation in applauding the Damien relic arrival. "We have welcomed Damien back home," Watanabe said. "Elevating Father Damien to Saint Damien is not meant merely to honor a long dead priest," read a booklet provided at St. Theresa for Saturday's Mass. "It is meant to hold him up as an example: To remind us that building a better world is neither beyond our abilities nor the sole province of governmental 'officialdom.' "We are not all meant to be saints. But we are meant to find Damien's virtues in ourselves and put them to work."

Cody Chai, 16, and Siosi Kolo, 14, were designated the official relic carriers for the Damien relic at St. Theresa. "It's a big responsibility," Chai said shortly before the relic was welcomed. "It's a blessing what Damien did." Kolo said Damien's life is an inspiration for young and old alike. "I think it's the best thing someone could do . . . serve others," he said. Nearly 300 people showed up at St. Theresa, and more than 300 participated in four hours of prayers and singing at Christ the King Church in Kahului. Keeping careful watch over the relic are men from a Catholic group called the Knights of Columbus. The color guard, dressed in white tuxedos, red-and-black capes and black hats with white or purple feathers, processed in and out of the churches with the relic. "We're basically keeping Saint Damien company," explained Ray Hart of the Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree Assembly Color Guard 2290. He and Larry Aberill have assumed the responsibility of escorting the relic throughout its three-day visit on Maui, including an overnight vigil in Hana. Hart, a Catholic convert, said he "adjusted to the thought" of escorting a part of a saint's body. "If there was any time I needed a saint, this is it," he said.

Early Christians started the tradition of relics as they gathered to worship in the catacombs near the graves of Christian martyrs. The tradition developed into the practice of burying a saint's bones in or under a church's altar. Damien's relic will eventually make its way Nov. 1 to the Catheral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu, where Damien was first ordained as a priest. The relic will be placed in a permanent glass case to the right of the church altar. All relic visitations and today's Maui Vicariate celebration beginning at 3:30 p.m. at the War Memorial Gymnasium are free and open to the public. A dinner for those who have presale tickets takes place from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

The Damien relic is being honored by people of many faiths and cultures. The Tongan community, for example, had the assistance of Aisea Lolesio Paunga, a 72-year-old choir director visiting from Tonga. Paunga said he was "impressed" by how well the Tongan choir from St. Theresa sang the song he had written to honor Damien. The Tongan Catholic community will sing the same song at today's celebration at the War Memorial Gymnasium. "It's amazing for me to have a senior director like him be here," said Loma Falekaono, the Tongan choir director at St. Theresa. "It's a good thing that we're learning from him." Another visitor at St. Theresa was Sathish Thurai, a native of India now living in San Jose, Calif. Thurai said he had never heard of St. Damien, but as a Catholic he was familiar with how much saints mean to the church. "Saints are a part of our lives," he said. "We always pray to saints to intercede in our lives." Thurai described Saturday's veneration as "awesome." St. Theresa parishioner, Stacy Chai, couldn't agree more. "I think it's really neat. It's an actual saint, and he's here."
By Claudine San Nicolas who can be reached at claudine@

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