I made a pilgrimage last week to Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai. This is the place were St. Fr. Damien lived and worked with patients with Hansen’s disease, more popularly known as leprosy.
Fr. Damien was canonized in 2009 by Blessed John Paul II. Damien is held in very high esteem by Hawaiians, especially native Hawaiians who live on the island of Molokai. His story is amazing and cannot be recounted in a blog post without doing him injustice. In essence, this Belgian priest volunteered to come to Kalaupapa after the people there requested a priest. Others had gone there briefly, and Damien was allowed to go by his superiors and the local bishop “as long as his devotion to do so” would allow him. At first, the plan was for various priests to take three month tours of duty in an attempt to minimize the risk of contagion, but after a few weeks of landing on its shores, Fr. Damien decided to remain indefinitely.
He begged incessantly for supplies and nursing help. He was a bit of a pest in that way with his superiors and the government leaders. Eventually, after many refusals by other congregations, Mother Marianne Cope of the Franciscans out of Syracuse, New York agreed to come with a few sisters. There this order remains, as does Fr. Damien’s order the Sacred Heart Fathers. Mother Marianne is now Blessed Mother Marianne Cope and will be canonized later this year.
Both bodies, that of Fr. Damien and that of Mother Marianne, have be removed from their original sites on Kalaupapa. The Belgians brought Damien’s body back to Belgium and Mother Marianne’s body was transposed to Syracuse. All of this is to the great dismay of the locals on Kalaupapa who consider Fr. Damien to have been their “father” and cannot understand how someone would take a father from his children. The Vatican required the bodies we exhumed and examined as part of the canonization process. The residents of Kalaupapa were given the remains of Damien’s hand to bury in his original grave.
Another interesting person at this place was brother Joseph Sutton, a Civil War veteran who came to Kalaupapa to live and work in atonement for his sins. He died in 1931 after many years of service to the patients.
Pilgrimages are to inspire and strengthen the faith. Most often, the benefits of making them are know to the individual after many weeks or months, not immediately. This certainly was the case for me after making a pilgrimage to Rome a number of years ago, the effect of which remain evident in my spiritual life. It is my hope that my pilgrimage to Kalaupapa may bear fruit in the months and years to come.
St. Damien of Molokai, and Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, pray for us!