With its wood, the tree honors the foot that pushed the shovel that planted it. Like many stories in Hawaii, the story of the box holding St. Damien’s relic, fragments of the saint’s foot bone, unfolds in many wonderful directions.
Telling it last week, with enthusiasm by phone from Makawao, Maui, was Edwin Ferreira.
It starts with a troupe of trees, seven or eight monkeypods that Father Damien planted to provide shade near the church he built in the late 1800s in Kaluaaha, Molokai.
That’s how Ferreira pictured it. “Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Church is in a hot and dry area,” he said.
A hundred years later, sometime in the 1980s, lightning struck one of the trees, killing it. It had to be cut down so it would not fall and damage the church.
Ferreira, whose job as construction supervisor for the phone company sent him to Molokai from time to time, knew the man who cut down the tree. He asked him if he could have some of the wood.
Ferreira took a 100-pound slab back to his home in Makawao. The lightning had damaged some of the wood, making it dry and porous, but toward the center of the thick trunk, it was dense and beautiful.
When Ferreira told his pastor, Sacred Hearts Father Joseph Hendriks, what he had, the priest asked the part-time craftsman, whom he had nicknamed Michelangelo, if he would make a display for a relic he had of Father Damien, a small lock of his hair. Ferreira did.
Several years later, after Father Damien was beatified, Ferreira discovered by chance that the envelope that had held the priest’s hair still contained a single strand hidden in one of the envelope’s creases.
He called Father Hendriks, who was then pastor of St. Francis Parish in Kalaupapa, to ask what he should do with it.
“Bring honor to Blessed Damien,” Father Hendriks told Ferreira.
So the Maui man took some of the wood and made a representation of the Kalaupapa peninsula and the Molokai cliffs. He then placed in the display a foot-high cross in which he imbedded a gold reliquary holding Damien’s hair. It was a personal sacred art piece which he would share with his parish.
Three years ago, Ferreira’s wife Olivia was discovered to have what appeared to be stage three or stage four cancer in her intestine. After a grim prognosis from an Oahu specialist, she had surgery. Amazingly, after the tumor was removed, tests declared her completely free of cancer cells.
The doctor said the happy outcome was highly unusual. But Ferreira called it a “miracle” attributable to his personal link to Blessed Damien, Damien’s tree, and his daily treks from Queen’s Medical Center to pray in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace.
In gratitude, Ferreira gave his Kalaupapa cross reliquary to Molokai-born Sacred Hearts Father Lane Akiona, the pastor of Ferreira’s boyhood parish of St. Augustine in Waikiki, who had anointed Olivia and prayed over her when she first came to Oahu for treatment.
“This is yours,” he told Father Akiona. “You can do more with this that I can in Makawao.”
Meanwhile, Ferreira had received requests for pieces of the wood — which could be classified as secondary relics — to be used as aids in prayer for people who were sick.
Ferreira brought some pieces to the bedside of a critically ill friend at Maui Memorial Medical Center where friends and family were praying for healing. A large Hawaiian man from Molokai in the next bed over asked if they would pray over him too.
The next day, the Hawaiian’s scheduled leg amputation was canceled. He had taken an unexpected turn for the better.
And a couple weeks ago, Ferreira saw his formerly hospitalized friend healthy and in church, a place he hadn’t been in years.
The scenario seemed to repeat itself in the home of another Maui man suffering from inoperable cancer.
“We all got together and went over to his house,” Ferreira said. “He was very gray, and could barely walk.”
“We prayed the rosary, laid hands on him, and prayed for his immediate healing,” he said. As they watched, his color came back.
In the latest update, Ferreira said, “He’s feeding his horses and he’s looking very good.”
They are continuing to pray for him.
When Bishop Larry Silva asked Ferreira if he would make the reliquary for the new traveling relic, Ferreira turned to his friend Allan Marciel who, he said, had the better workshop.
Ferreira designed the box and Marciel did most of the handiwork. Another friend cut the display glass.
The box now holds pieces of bone from a larger relic of St. Damien. (See accompanying story.)
Ferreira also used some of the wood to make a pectoral cross for Bishop Silva.
Ferreira has been running leftover wood through his band saw, creating thin flat pieces about an inch or two long that he places in individual plastic zip-lock bags and gives away as St. Damien relics. Some of the pieces are blackened, burned by the lighting strike that killed the tree.
He had them blessed and has offered them to fellow parishioners at St. Joseph Church in Makawao, and to the bishop and friends and acquaintances.
Ferreira said that he feels compelled to tell the stories of St. Damien’s wood because of all the good things he has seen.
“If it sounds like I’m bragging, I am bragging in Jesus’ name,” he said.
Printed with permission from the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper for the Diocese of Honolulu.