Patients’ Pilgrimage

Kalaupapa patients to travel to Rome for Damien’s canonization.

By Dan Murphy

Thousands of people will flock to Vatican City on Oct. 11 for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of witnessing Father Damien’s canonization. None will deserve the unique view as much as the 11 Hansen’s disease patients who will make the trip all the way from Hawaii.

The traveling patients make up roughly half of the living Hansen’s disease patients and hail from both Kalaupapa and a care center in Honolulu. They will come together on Oct. 1 to start their journey to Damien’s canonization.

“Everybody here is very excited,” said Kalaupapa‘s youngest patient, Norbert Pealea. “It’s also symbolic because we were outcasts and we represent the thousands of people that died before.”

The two-week trip will start in Belgium, where the group will tour Tremelo, Damien’s hometown and the site of his museum. They will also go to St. Anthony’s Chapel in Louvain where Damien’s body is buried.

“It is a huge church there that has all the pictures of patients that I never knew. He is downstairs all surrounded by black marble,” Ivy Kahilihiwa said. This will be Kahilihiwa’s second trip to Belgium. She also traveled to Europe in 1989 for the 100th anniversary of Father Damien’s death.

For many going on the trip, Damien’s home in Belgium will be the highlight of their journey.

“I’ve never been to Belgium, and for me, going to see where Damien grew up is a huge privilege,” said Sister Alicia Damien, a Hansen’s disease nurse from Honolulu who served as a liaison in arranging the trip.

Making it Happen
Sister Alicia Damien worked with her patients and a travel company called Seawind Tours to orchestrate all the trip’s details, as well as the medical assistance the patients will need along the way. Seawind Tours was in charge of the patients’ last trip to Rome in 1995 for Father Damien’s beatification. Seawinds President Randy King said it was only natural that they design one for the canonization.

 “When it came up that he was up for canonization we were contacted by the bishop’s office and started working together,” King said. “It has been a big undertaking, but we are really excited that the patients are coming with us.”

The tour will also have another special guest. Audrey Tagochi, whose rare cancer was cured after she prayed to Father Damien in 1998, will also make the journey. The unexpected cure was deemed a miracle, and gave Damien the credentials he needed to be named a saint.

In total, more than 500 people signed up to be a part of the Seawind Tour for the canonization. Most customers had to pay to be a part of the historic event, but the patients were supported by a recent fundraiser in Honolulu. The dinner for Father Damien was held on July 18 at Honolulu’s Sheraton Hotel. Over 900 people signed up for the sold-out dinner that raised $100,000.

King and his team have put countless hours into planning the trip, including four site visits to map out the order of events.

“It’s been very interesting to see how different it is from Hawaii,” he said. “Being a part of this is amazing. Some days it’s almost overwhelming – not the work, just the fact of what we are going to do.”

Keeping the focus
The tour has also scheduled several masses and events to keep the real reason of their visit in focus. The group will attend mass at St. Anthony’s Chapel in Belgium before seeing the tomb of Father Damien. King has also scheduled a mass or religious event for each day they are in Italy.

“[Honolulu] Bishop Larry Silva will be there and saying mass for us a few times,” King said.

The group will be honored with a papal audience their first day in Rome, as well as mass on a day trip to the small Italian town of Assissi and a special Hawaiian mass on the day before they return to prepare for the relic’s trip to the islands.

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