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A Saint Comes Home

Father Damien came to Honolulu before going to Kalaupapa. Now Catholics celebrate the return of his relic.


Photo: Courtesy of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace

When you hear about Father Damien, Kalaupapa instantly comes to mind. After all, the Belgian priest is best known for caring for the Hansen’s disease (leprosy) patients on Molokai’s remote peninsula. But Damien also had a historical connection with Honolulu.

Damien (born as Jozef de Veuster) was a 24-year-old choirboy when he arrived in Honolulu on March 19, 1864. Determined to become a priest, he had taken his brother’s place on a Sacred Hearts mission to Hawaii after his brother became too ill to participate. He studied at Oahu’s Sacred Hearts Father’s College of Ahuimanu, and, on May 21, Damien was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in downtown Honolulu. Damien served in several parishes before going to Kalaupapa: Maui, the Puna district on the Big Island and then the vast Kohala-Hamakua parish. He spent nine years on the Big Island and almost 16 years on Molokai, until his death in 1889.


Damien was buried outside St. Philomena Church in Kalawao, a small town on the Kalaupapa peninsula. At the Belgian government’s request, his remains were taken to Louvain in 1936. Audrey Toguchi was nearly 8 years old at the time, and remembers attending a procession on Bishop Street. She recalls “watching his casket travel from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace to Honolulu Harbor, where a boat was waiting to take his remains to Belgium.” 

The former Aiea High School teacher, 81, became part of the process of Father Damien becoming a saint. She believes her incurable cancer disappeared after she prayed for Damien’s intercession, which the Catholic church has deemed a miracle.

After Damien’s canonization on Oct. 11, it is expected that many people will want to visit his original gravesite, but the state has a limited-access policy for the Molokai peninsula.

“Kalaupapa is not a very accessible place,” says Bishop Larry Silva of the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu. “That’s part of the reason the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace was chosen to house the relic. It’s also the same church he was ordained at.”

The cathedral will hold a special ceremony on Nov. 1 (All Saints’ Day) honoring the second relic—Damien’s right heel bone. The first Damien relic (the bones of his right hand) was reburied in Kalawao.

“It’s really exciting, not only for the Catholics, but for the whole state of Hawaii,” says Deacon Wallace Mitsui.

Silva and other church members will accompany the relic from Rome.

“We have cemeteries where we go to be close to those we love,” explains Silva. “The significance of Father Damien’s relic is that it brings the person we love that much closer to us.”


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Honolulu Magazine April 2018
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