When in Rome
The morning of Father Damien’s canonization dawned cold, dark and rainy in Rome. Eighty thousand people from around the world packed into St. Peter’s Square, jockeying for a chance to get inside of the famous Basilica. A small group from a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific pushed through the crowds to reach a special side entrance before taking their reserved seats a few feet away from the alter. They were VIPs.
Those VIPs, 11 Hansen’s disease patients from Kalaupapa and Hale Mohalu hospital in Honolulu, were treated as celebrities for the entirety of their two-week trip to Europe. They were part of a Hawaiian tour group of over 500 people that traveled to Belgium and Italy to celebrate the life of Hawaii’s first saint.
“It was first class everywhere we went,” said Kalaupapa patient Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa. “At every event we were always given the highest priority.”
is about two flights of stairs beneath the church,” explained Kahilihiwa. “It’s so silent in there, but when you get down there you really feel like Damien is there to greet you – gives you chicken skin.”
The first-class treatment and once in a lifetime experiences continued as the group moved on to Italy for the second week of their trip. Mary Igarta, another Molokai resident who made the pilgrimage, said seeing all of the holy sites in Rome and being present for the canonization was a very spiritual event.
“It reminded me how proud I was to be a catholic from Molokai and so close to Father Damien. Having over 500 Hawaiians people present at the canonization was amazing,” she said.
While in Rome the patients had two audiences with the pope and were specially invited to visit the U.S. Embassy.
At the embassy, the group met with cardinals from around the world, Hawaiian Senator Daniel Akaka, Congressman Donald Payne and Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva. The American dignitaries were part of a four-man group selected by President Obama to represent the United States at Damien’s canonization. The fourth member was Kalaupapa’s own Steve Prokop.
Prokop, the National Park Service Superintendent at Kalaupapa, received a phone call from the White House asking him to represent the country during his trip to Europe.
“Getting a call from the White House was completely out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting to be named to the delegation, but it was a great honor,” Prokop said.
As part of the delegation, Prokop received a behind-the-scenes tour of the Vatican, attended special receptions in Rome and met the King and Queen of Belgium.
“We rode around with police escorts wherever we went. It was certainly one of the personal and professional highlights of my life,” Prokop said.
He said that the most exciting part of the trip for him was seeing how well the patients were treated throughout the entire trip. After being treated so poorly in the past, he was happy to see all of his Kalaupapa neighbors getting the respect they deserve.
The patients were not looking for fame, but they were also happy about the treatment they received overseas.
“Everybody felt real, real good about it,” Palea said. “I wouldn’t say we were celebrities. People just wanted to talk to us to get closer to Father Damien.”
The irony of being in the spotlight after generations of Kalaupapa residents were marginalized by society wasn’t lost on the patients.
“A hundred years ago they would’ve said, ‘What are these lepers doing here?’ and now we are meeting ambassadors and every place we went we were the first ones to go,” Kahilihiwa said with a laugh.