Saturday, January 2, 2010

This story rings true: St. Damien's Big Island church bell discovered

(Left) The former Waiapuka bell in St. Stephen Church, Nuuanu. Its plaque reads, “The original St. Stephens Catholic Church Bell.” (Right) This undated Sacred Hearts Congregation photo had the caption “Church of Waiapuka Kohala built by F.D. dismantled by F. Servitius its bell in St. Stephen’s Church Nuuanu Honolulu”

When researching the Catholic Church’s history in Hawaii, I have always taken an interest in old church bells. This a story of one such bell.

On Nov. 6, 1932, Bishop Stephen Alencastre blessed the church of St. Stephen in Nuuanu, Honolulu. During the construction of the church, an old abandoned bell from a dismantled church in Waiapuka on the Big Island was installed in the tower. One can only imagine how faithfully it had served the Hawaiian Catholics of Kohala in those early mission days. Now, once more, it was called upon to do the same for the faithful of Nuuanu.

In 1968, the parishioners with their pastor, Father Joseph Turk, built the present-day St. Stephen’s and, in its modernistic tower, new bells were inserted. The old bell, no longer needed, was put to rest in some inconspicuous area on the church grounds. Abandoned again, it would remain quietly there through the passing years. In the 1990s, a thoughtful parishioner, the late Robert Dong (everyone called him “Uncle Bob”) provided a stock — the harness-mount — for the bell. Some time later, someone decided to bring the venerable object out of the cold into the warmth of the church building. And here, in the back corner of St. Stephen Church, the old bell sits today.

On the morning of Oct. 11, the day Pope Benedict XVI canonized Father Damien in Rome, St. Stephen’s pastor, Father Khanh Pham-Nguyen, asked me to celebrate the parish Mass and talk about Hawaii’s new saint. A few days earlier, I was suddenly struck by this thought: Could there be a connection between our honored saint and the old Kohala bell?

Before going to Molokai, the young Belgian priest had devoted many years of his early ministry in the Kohala-Hamakua region. Could this be the bell that once served Father Damien’s Waiapuka mission in Kohala? A letter written home by Father Damien makes this notion plausible. Writing to his parents on Oct. 12, 1869, while he was serving in Kohala, he mentioned a bell. “At present I have three churches to serve at fifteen miles distance one from another,” he wrote. “The last church I built is a fine-looking building with a nice little tower. I am still waiting for the bell that Auguste (his older brother, Father Pamphile) has so often promised me, but it never comes … As there is no bell yet, we call our people together with a horn.”

This indeed is a “letter of interest,” but it was not a convincing proof for the notion I had in mind. I had to look at the old bell itself for an answer. Old church bells can reveal a lot of things. Years ago I had climbed the rickety wooden stairs in the tower of Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in Honolulu to see what one of Hawaii’s oldest church bells would tell me. On its bronze surface were inscribed in French the words: “My name is Marie Louis Maigret, Bishop of Arathia … 1853.” Since then, I have always referred to this century-and-a-half-year-old metal hulk as the “MAIGRET BELL.” (Louis Maigret was the missionary bishop in Honolulu when the cathedral was built. Since Honolulu was not a diocese at the time, he was named to the titular diocese of “Arathia.”) Now, I made a hurried visit to the Nuuanu parish to examine closely the Kohala bell. The inscription I found was brief. It gave the name of the Paris foundry where the bell was made. But what followed was a most happy revelation! It was the date: “1872” The date 1872 definitely indicated that the bell had served one of Father Damien’s mission churches in Kohala. But more than that, I am convinced that this is the bell mentioned in Damien’s 1869 letter to his parents; the bell he anxiously had expected from his brother Auguste; the bell he planned to install in the “nice little tower” of a church he had built.

The bell must have arrived in Hawaii that year of 1872, much to the joy and satisfaction of the priest and people of Kohala. The following year, God had other plans for Father Damien. On May 10, 1873, he began his new ministry on the island of Molokai. After my discovery, Father Christopher Keahi, superior of the Sacred Hearts Fathers in Hawaii located an old undated picture in an archives photo album of a church with a small bell tower and this caption: “Church of Waiapuka Kohala built by F.D. dismantled by F. Servitius its bell in St. Stephen’s Church Nuuanu, Honolulu.” Father Keahi’s explanatory note said that “F.D.” is Father Damien and “F. Servatius” is Father Servatius Thys, who took down the Waiapuka church in 1932 (the year St. Stephen was built) after it congregation “apparently moved to other sites.”

On the Sunday I offered the Mass at St. Stephen’s, the day Benedict XVI declared Damien a saint, I spoke to the parishioners about their prized possession — St. Damien’s old mission bell. Perhaps no one was happier and more proud than the pastor himself, Father Pham-Nguyen. He assured me that the bell would not remain silent. This “DAMIEN BELL” will continue to ring out in God’s service as it did in the mission days of old.

By Father Louis H. Yim
Island-born Father Yim is a retired pastor, diocesan archivist and historian.

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.

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