- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

HONOLULU — Most need wheel chairs. Their average age is 80. Neither fact is stopping 11 elderly Hawaii leprosy patients from traveling 12,000 miles to the Vatican this month to watch as the Catholic Church canonizes Father Damien, a priest who cared for leprosy patients throughout the islands more than a century ago before dying of the disease himself.

Father Damien, who was born in Belgium as Joseph de Veuster, remains a beloved figure among many in Hawaii. In the 1870s, the leprosy patients Father Damien cared for were shunned by most people, even doctors, because of an intense stigma that was associated with the disease.

Today’s patients from Kalaupapa, the isolated peninsula where Hawaii’s leprosy patients were banished for more than 100 years, feel particularly close to Father Damien.

Dr. Kalani Brady, their physician, said last Thursday the trip to Rome will be an “energy-laden” voyage for many of his patients.

“They’re going to see their personal saint canonized,” said Dr. Brady, 53, who will accompany the group to Rome.

It’s “incredibly important, incredibly personal for them,” he said.

The reverence for Father Damien transcends religious sects, Dr. Brady said, noting that one 84-year-old making the trip is Mormon.

“He’s bound to a wheelchair; he’s completely blind. So it’s important enough for him to go, despite the hurdles [that] he has to overcome,” Dr. Brady said.

The Catholic Church announced earlier this year that it would make Father Damien a saint after determining a Hawaii woman was cured of terminal cancer after she prayed to Father Damien and he interceded on her behalf.

The church found there was no medical explanation for the woman’s recovery.

Pope Benedict XVI is due to preside over Father Damien’s canonization on Oct. 11. Father Damien was beatified - a step toward sainthood - in 1995 by Pope John Paul II.

The pope is expected to meet privately with the patients during their stay in Rome.

The 11 are among about 20 patients who still live at Kalaupapa. The Kingdom of Hawaii began banishing leprosy patients to the remote section of Molokai island in the 1860s to control an outbreak of the disease that was killing native Hawaiians in large numbers.

Many Hawaiians had no natural immunity to leprosy, as well as other diseases that led the Hawaiian population to shrink 70 percent in the seven decades after Captain James Cook, the first European to visit the islands, arrived in 1778.

About 90 percent of the 8,000 people exiled to Kalaupapa were native Hawaiians.

Successive governments continued to exile patients to Kalaupapa for over a century, through 1969, when the state of Hawaii finally stopped the practice more than two decades after the discovery of drugs that could treat the disease.

Many patients chose to stay at Kalaupapa even after the medical isolation order was lifted because the community had become their home.

Today, many patients still have to fight the indignity of stereotypes and misperceptions about the illness.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is spread by direct person-to-person contact, although it’s not easily transmitted. It can cause skin lesions and lead to blindness.

But it’s been curable since the development of sulfone drugs in the 1940s, and people treated with drugs aren’t contagious.

Father Damien built homes for the sick, changed their bandages and ate poi, a Hawaiian staple, from the same bowl as the patients. He put up no barriers between himself and those he ministered to.

He was diagnosed with leprosy 12 years after he arrived and died five years later, in 1889.

Overall, about 650 people from Hawaii are traveling to Rome for the canonization.

Most, between 520 and 550 people, are expected to be part of the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu’s delegation.

Those attending also include a Boy Scout troop and Hawaii Lt. Gov. James R. “Duke” Aiona.

Some will visit Belgium, including the town of Tremelo, where Father Damien was born, and Leuven, where his body was buried in 1936.

Father Damien still has a grave at Kalaupapa, but it now only contains a relic of his right hand.

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