VATICAN CITY — On Oct. 11, there will be rejoicing on the island of Molokai, perhaps rejoicing like never before.
That’s the day Damien de Veuster, a missionary priest who served patients with Hansen’s disease there, will be canonized in Rome.
The same day Pope Benedict XVI also will canonize four other blesseds, including Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Both Sts. Damien and Jeanne have links to the United States.
Damien de Veuster was born in Belgium in 1840 and took his religious vows with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Louvain in 1860. In 1863, he was assigned to the order’s Hawaii mission. He was ordained at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu shortly after his arrival in 1864. In 1873 he was sent to the Hansen’s disease settlement, called Kalaupapa, on the isolated north side of the island of Molokai and spent 16 years serving its residents until his death in 1889. He gave of himself completely to the people he’d come to love, tending their infected bodies, building homes, ministering the sacraments, and offering encouragement and companionship. He died five years after contracting the disease himself.
Hawaii Catholic Herald’s editor, Patrick Downes, will be attending the canonization. He, along with more than 500 Hawaiians will be traveling on pilgrimage first to Belgium to visit Damien’s tomb and home diocese and then on to Rome.
“I was trying to write what this all means to me,” Downes said. “I kept coming back to the beatitudes — ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ These people ended up in Kalaupapa because the [king of Hawaii] passed a law that those infected had to go to this place, the most isolated spot on the globe. To have the Vatican canonize a priest from this desolate place is very moving.”
The 500 pilgrims include nine Catholic boy scouts from Oahu who are known as the St. Damien Boy Scouts.
No doubt the canonization will be both an emotional and grace-filled event, not only for those heading to Rome, but also for those remaining in Hawaii, particularly in the Kalaupapa settlement. Twenty-five residents still live there of their own free will, some of them descendants of the original settlers who were banished there by law in the 1800s. Visits by nonresidents are limited, and no one under 16 is allowed.
That’s proof of the impact left on the people of Molokai, but also proof that political and societal challenges can be overcome by love and sacrifice. Sacred Hearts Father Lane Akiona is the Archdiocese of Honolulu liaison and has overseen the travel arrangements for the canonization pilgrimage. He also is the representative who will carry the Damien relic from the canonization celebration to it final resting place in the Honolulu cathedral. He believes that Damien’s example is an important message for our time.
“Even though there were major challenges for Blessed Damien [in terms of the political and societal conditions of his time], his mission wasn’t hindered nor hampered by them. There are still some heartaches about the way the transition of power happened in Hawaii, and what happened to the kingdom and all of that. Damien was living in that time period. This event supersedes all of that and unites all of our people in a common goal and effort to look to the future. He was a man of God who wanted to meet the needs of the people.”
St. Jeanne Jugan
Jeanne Jugan also spent her life meeting the needs of the people. Born in Cancale, France, in 1792, Jeanne grew up in the shadows of the French Revolution. The revolution left many elderly poor, sick and homeless. Jeanne saw it as her mission to take in the poor elderly and care for them. It began with one blind, elderly woman in 1839. Jeanne took her into her own home, gave the woman her own bed and slept in the attic.
From then on, requests for admission into Jeanne’s home continued to increase, and other dedicated women joined her apostolate. In 1842, the women formed an association and elected Jeanne as their superior. The association later was formed into the Servants of the Poor and eventually the Little Sisters of the Poor; it received its canonical approval from Pope Pius IX in 1854. In order to meet the escalating cost of supporting the mission, Jeanne took up the practice of “collecting” — begging door to door and in the marketplaces — a practice that is still carried out by the order today.
In 1868, the first Little Sisters arrived in the United States and began setting up houses for the elderly. Within four years, they’d set up 13 houses, and by the 1950s there were 52. Enactment of the Life Safety Code and various nursing-home regulations in the 1960s forced the sisters to replace nearly all of their homes, and today there are 30 homes for the needy elderly across the United States, all of them run by the Little Sisters, volunteers and lay associates of the order and supported solely by collecting and donations.
Aside from the many houses for the elderly run by the sisters in the United States, it was an American whose case pushed Jeanne Jugan’s cause forward. Dr. Edward Gatz of Omaha, Neb., was expected to live no more than six months after being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Gatz’s wife, Jeanne, and the late Jesuit Father Richard McGloin, a friend of the couple, prayed to Blessed Jeanne daily following the diagnosis.
At one point, he decided not to have chemotherapy or radiation because he was told that neither would cure him, but he was instructed to continue having regular exams. After each exam, nothing would be found. Two and a half years after surgery, doctors did additional studies on Gatz’s tumor. Based on the cell type, he was deemed “lucky” to still be alive. “I knew it was a gift from God,” Gatz told the Register in April, when news of St. Jeanne Jugan’s canonization was announced.
Sister Rose Marie Kietter calls herself the “beggar nun,” and she bears the title proudly. She has been a Little Sister since 1960 and is assigned to the order’s home in Oregon, Ohio. Jeanne Jugan passed on to her order a beautiful legacy of humility and smallness before God — thus the name Little Sisters of the Poor. When the announcement for the canonization was made, each of the order’s houses held a drawing to determine who would attend the celebration in Rome. Sister Rose Marie’s name was pulled from the hat, and she is absolutely thrilled.
“This canonization was put aside for 27 years,” she said. “It’s been 27 years since her beatification. After her death, a priest took over the work, and Blessed Jeanne was put aside. She wasn’t even recognized as the foundress. Now, after all this time, she’s finally getting her due.”
Sister Andrea Munarriz might be the mother superior of the Little Sisters’ home in Gallup, N.M., but she certainly doesn’t feel superior to the others simply because her name was pulled from the hat. She was speechless.
“When my name came up, I didn’t even know what to say,” she said. “I just started jumping for joy.”
That joy is a mere fraction of the joy Jeanne has brought to so many through her work and example. Especially with the recent trends toward assisted suicide, euthanasia and a prevailing disrespect for life, the Little Sisters feel that Jeanne’s work stands out as a testimony to the respect for life that all people need and deserve.
“There will be 4,000 of us from all over the world,” Sister Andrea said. “Sisters, volunteers, residents, lay associates. We’ll be all together for this great event and probably won’t ever see each other again. But we’ll be there to show the world that our mother had a love, a sense of dignity for the elderly poor.”
Marge Fenelon writes
from Cudahy, Wisconsin.