Damien Banner hanging from St. Peters Bascilica
VATICAN CITY — A decades-long push to see one of Hawaii's heroes become a saint was finalized here Sunday when Pope Benedict XVI canonized five people, including Father Damien, a 19th-century priest whose work with leprosy patients on a Hawaiian island was hailed by President Obama as an inspiration to those helping AIDS sufferers today.
More than 550 islanders made the 12,000-mile trek to Rome for the canonization of Hawaii's first saint, which comes 120 years after Father Damien's death in Kalaupapa from leprosy, now known as Hansen's disease.
The basilica's 20,000-seat capacity was filled quickly and thousands of others stood in the square, where they watched the Canon of Saints of the Roman Catholic Church ceremony on TV screens.
Among attendees were 11 of the remaining Hawaii residents sent to Kalaupapa after being diagnosed with the disease at a time when the state still quarantined those with leprosy.
"To have given his life for what he believed in. Oh, it makes me feel small," said Kalaupapa resident Elroy Makia Malo.
Hawaii resident Audrey Toguchi, 80, a retired teacher whose recovery from lung cancer a decade ago was called miraculous by the Vatican, also attended.
She had prayed to Belgium-born Jozef De Veuster, more commonly known as Father Damien, who died in 1889 after contracting leprosy while working with patients living in isolation on Molokai island.
Toguchi and her doctor, Walter Chang, joined a procession of faithful bringing relics of the new saints to Benedict at the central altar of the basilica.
Father Damien is the ninth person who has been elevated to sainthood for good works on what is now American soil.
The Rev. Christopher Keahi, the provincial superior for the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts in the Islands, said the canonization cause took hard work and prayer.
"I never dreamed Damien would be canonized in my lifetime. He is like an idol for me," said Sister Roselani Enomoto of Honolulu.
Obama said he learned of Father Damien while growing up in Hawaii. "As millions around the world suffer from disease, especially the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, we should draw on the example of Father Damien's resolve in answering the urgent call to heal and care for the sick," Obama said in a statement.
In Hawaii, residents of Kalaupapa, where Father Damien ministered to the sick, walked in a heavy mist, carrying a banner bearing his likeness, and celebrated a Mass in his honor.
And at Honolulu's Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, Mildred Jacoby, 77, of Kapolei, said it was "like heaven" to attend Mass in the church where Father Damien was first ordained.
By Mary Vorsino The Honolulu Advertiser
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