Religion and Spirituality

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Hugh E. Gentry/AP
The grave of Father Damien in the village of Kalaupapa on Molokai, Hawaii.

Hawaii’s Father Damien to Become Saint, Vatican Says

February 22, 2009 12:02 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The canonization of Father Damien, a 19th-century missionary in Hawaii, could mean loss of privacy for people at a former leper colony in the state.

Canonization Could Turn Isolated Colony Into Popular Spot

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In a ceremony scheduled for Oct. 11, Father Damien De Veuster will become a saint in the Catholic Church, reports the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. De Veuster is well-known in Hawaii, where he worked with people at a leper colony in the 1800s.

Father Damien lived in Kalaupapa and served the leper community when it was established in 1869, but died later of the leprosy, formally named Hansen’s disease. At the end of the 20th century, a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer came to Kalaupapa to pray to Father Damien, and within a year was completely healed. Finding no medical explanation, the Pope declared the recovery to be the result of an intervention by Father Damien—a miracle.

To become a saint, a person must be responsible for two posthumous miracles. Father Damien was beatified by Pope John Paul II after a first miracle was attributed to him. The second miracle was confirmed in July 2008, guaranteeing Father Damien’s canonization.

Father Damien moved to Hawaii from Belgium in 1864. A missionary, he was compelled to work with a community of lepers on Kalaupapa after they were exiled by the government. He died in 1889 at the age of 49, after he contracted the disease. A push to name him a saint started in 1955, according to the Honolulu Bulletin.

The Hawaiian government stopped enforcing the exile in 1969, though some people decided to stay at the colony. Some at the settlement are concerned the relative peace and quiet they enjoy may be shattered when Father Damien is named a saint.

Current patients and residents of the sequestered peninsula take pride in Father Damien, and happily receive pilgrims wishing to visit his grave, but when he is named a saint, there is a chance the area will be inundated with tourists. The government and the National Park Service, which runs a historic park on Kalaupapa, will make every effort to protect current residents. State Sen. J. Kalani English said, “The priority is the patients,” emphasizing, “their privacy is paramount, their security is paramount, their dignity is paramount.” Currently, visitors are limited to 100 a day.

Background: Hawaii’s leper colony

In 1865, King Kamehameha V approved “An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy” during an outbreak, resulting in the founding of the leper community at Kalaupapa. Conditions were quite unpleasant for the banished group, but in his lifetime, Father Damien made great strides in improving day-to-day life for the sick.

Recently, in April 2008, the government issued an official apology to the patients and families quarantined at the island. Although the exile was lifted in 1969, some have chosen to remain. There is a National Park at Kalaupapa to commemorate those whose were exiled.

Reference: Leprosy today

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