Eleven elderly leprosy patients from Hawaii will travel to the Vatican for the canonization ceremony of Fr. Damien de Veuster, the heroic priest who cared for leprosy patients in Hawaii and died of the disease. The patients’ attending doctor called Fr. Damien their “personal saint.”
The Belgian-born priest is a hero in Hawaii for caring for those victims banished to the isolated Kalaupapa peninsula. Native Hawaiians were devastated by leprosy, which appeared after the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778.
About 90 percent of the approximately 8,000 people exiled to the peninsula were native Hawaiians. The state of Hawaii stopped exiling leprosy victims in 1969, more than two decades after a reliable treatment was discovered.
Many patients chose to stay at the colony because the community had become their home.
Eleven of the about 20 patients still living at Kalaupapa will make the 12,000-mile trip to Rome for the priest’s canonization, according to the Associated Press.
Their physician, Dr. Kalani Brady, said the trip will be an “energy-laden” voyage for many patients.
"They're going to see their personal saint canonized,” Brady told the Associated Press. The event is “incredibly important, incredibly personal for them.”
Since 1936, Fr. Damien’s body has rested in his Belgian hometown of Tremelo. However, his grave at Kalaupapa contains a relic of his right hand.
The canonization of Fr. Damien was announced earlier this year after the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints ruled that there was no medical explanation for a woman’s recovery from terminal cancer. She had prayed to Fr. Damien to intercede for a cure.
Pope Benedict XVI will preside over the canonization on October 11. The priest was beatified in 1995 by Pope John Paul II.
Pope Benedict is expected to meet privately with the patients during their stay in Rome.
About 650 people from Hawaii are traveling to Rome for the canonization. Most are expected to be part of the delegation of the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu.
A Boy Scout group called the St. Damien Boy Scouts of Oahu will document the capstone event and their travels on the internet using a blog, YouTube and Facebook.
In an August interview, Scout Master John Fielding told CNA about his scouts’ planned journey and the place of Fr. Damien in Hawaii.
“Fr. Damien is not only a symbol of our Church, but he is a hero to the Hawaiian people for his sacrifice,” he explained. “Fr. Damien’s statue is in the front of the Hawaii State Capitol and the U.S. Congress. Damien Memorial High School, where one of our scouts attends, is named in his honor.”
“Even if you are not Catholic, you know of his sacrifice and love for the many Hawaiians left to die there [at Molokai].”
The scouts have set up a Facebook account under the name of Damien de Veuster and have set up a YouTube channel named “saintdmienscouts.”
They will also report on their journey at http://stdamienboyscouts.wordpress.com