by Jill Chessman
There are few places to visit in the United States that are so closely associated with a canonized saint as the island of Molokai in Hawaii. Fr. Damien de Veuster, a priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, came from Belgium to Hawaii as a missionary in the late 19th century. At the time, there was an outbreak of leprosy on the islands. People with leprosy were sent in quarantine to an isolated peninsula on the island of Molokai to live with neither medical nor spiritual assistance. In 1873, Fr. Damien volunteered to go to Molokai to be their priest with the understanding that he would have to spend the rest of his life there. He labored tirelessly for 16 years caring for the spiritual and physical needs of those in the leper colony before dying of leprosy himself. He was canonized in 2009.
Molokai is a beautiful island with stunning scenery—a well-kept secret. There are no resorts here, few tourists, traffic lights are unnecessary. The sign on the road leading from the tiny airport says it all. “Slow down, this is Molokai.” The only way to get from “topside” Molokai to the Kalaupapa peninsula, where Damien served his lepers (below), is by airplane or by a steep mule path down the cliff that separates Kalaupapa from the mainland.
The mule-ride down to the Kalaupapa peninsula takes about an hour and a half.
As former leprosy patients still live on the peninsula, there are strict rules and restrictions about touring the peninsula. But the trouble is worth it, as you can visit the church, St. Philomena, where St. Damien said mass everyday, and venerate his tomb. Fr. Damien’s body was exhumed and returned to Belgium in 1936. The remains of his right hand were returned to the tomb in 1995.
The former tomb of Mother Marianne Cope, also a canonized saint, who came to help in 1888 with four Franciscan Sisters. Her body had also been removed to her community’s headquarters in Syracuse, New York. When her order, like so many others, had to dispose of its property there, the diocese of Hawaii brought her body to the Cathedral in Honolulu 1n 2014.
A third figure important to Molokai is Brother Joseph Dutton, a lay helper to Fr. Damien, whose cause is up for sainthood. He is buried near the tomb of Fr. Damien.
The churches on Molokai that Damien built with his own hands are perhaps the most moving sites to visit. When he arrived, there was a small church in a dilapidated state. Damien restored the church—St. Philomena—and enlarged it several times as his flock grew. For Damien, a well-appointed church where mass could be celebrated with the dignity was central to his mission. A beautifully celebrated mass lifted his poor forsaken patients from their misery. He organized altar boy groups and choirs, requesting from the Bishop of Honolulu surplices and robes. With remarkable energy, Damien built a second church on the leper colony and four churches “topside” on the main island of Molokai. He called carpentry his only hobby—for the rare moments he had to himself.
Fr. Damien enlarged St. Philomena several times, as can be seen from this side view. His final project was the stone front section and belfry. He embellished the interior as well. Below is the original altar. He later reoriented the church, creating a larger apse and nave, leaving the original altar as a side altar on the right. Notice in the foreground a “folding table” Vatican II altar, a make-shift addition that surely would have never suited Fr. Damien.
On the other side of the peninsula, Fr. Damien built a second church, which he called Our Lady Help of the Sick. The current church, St. Francis, was built next to it after his death and is the current parish church for the patients who remain on the peninsula.
The church that St. Damien built can be seen through the window of St. Francis (below)
Two churches remain that St. Damien built on the “topside” of Molokai. St. Joseph Church (below), built in 1876, is said to be in its original condition. A wooden steeple, removed when the tower was repaired, has not yet been replaced.
Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows Church (below) was built in 1874 and rebuilt in 1966 using original components and furnishings. Sunday Mass is still celebrated there.
(Above) Our Lady of Lourdes with a lei.(Below) The Stations of the Cross – a series of prints which was donated to this church around Fr. Damien’s time by admirers of his work.
(Above and below). In 2010, St. Sophia, the Catholic church in Kaunakakai, the main town of Molokai, burned down. Its modernistic replacement, dedicated to St Damien, hardly reflects the simple yet beautiful traditions of the old Catholic churches of Molokai and Hawaii – and has left the parish saddled with a debt to the diocese of over a million dollars as well.
(Above and below) Before coming to Molokai, Fr. Damien was active on the island of Hawaii (the “Big Island”). We doubt he would recognize certain modern Catholic churches there. This chapel in Puaku resembles more a lecture hall than a church – if you look carefully you will notice behind the tabernacle, instead of a reredos, a banner with an image of Pope Francis….