La Verne Can Lay Claim to Newest Saint: Mass Celebrating Sainthood of Father Damien Set for Oct. 15

October 4, 2009
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Father Damien, seen here with the Kalawao Girls Choir during the 1870s.

Father Damien, seen here with the Kalawao Girls Choir during the 1870s.

A half century ago, some very smart and prescient people had a vision.

The Father of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who founded the Pomona Catholic Boys High School in La Verne in 1959 petitioned to have the high school renamed Damien High in 1967 after the famous member of their order.

They got their wish, and if any of those petitioners are still alive 50 years later, they will be proud to know that their Father Damien, the Belgian missionary priest to the leper colony on Molokai, will be raised to sainthood in a process known as canonization on Oct. 11 in Rome.

Locally, Damien High School will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving with Cardinal Roger Mahony, Bishop Gaboino Zavala and Bishop Gerald Barnes on Oct. 15 in the campus’s Athletic center at 7:30 p.m.

The history of the saint-to-be is well known to Damien High School students, who study their school’s namesake as part of their freshman curriculum. The students also strive to imitate Damien through the 100 hours of community service that each student must complete during a school year.

As part of that service, many Damien students annually participate in a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, where over the last two decades Damien students, parents and supporters have constructed 42 homes, five churches, five sets of classrooms and two community centers.
 

Portrait of Father Damien, attributed to Edward Clifford, 1868, Honolulu Academy of Arts

Portrait of Father Damien, attributed to Edward Clifford, 1868, Honolulu Academy of Arts

Damien’s principal Sacred Hearts Father Patrick Travers has been leading many of the trips.

‚ÄúThat‚Äôs the spirit that we try to live out in what we do, and that‚Äôs reaching out to the unfortunate,‚ÄĚ Father Travers told Anna Weaver of the Hawaii Catholic Herald. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs why we‚Äôre reaching out to the poorest of the poor in Tijuana.‚ÄĚ

Amazingly, more than $200,000 is raised annually to support Damien High School mission.

But Father Damien’ legacy, which will be celebrated by the high school and greater community Oct 15, has always inspired that kind of passionate commitment to those less fortunate.

Damien was not only the missionary of the Hawaiian natives, but also constructed several chapels with his own hands, both in Hawaii and in Molokai.
 
In Molokai, there was a leper settlement where the Government segregated anyone afflicted with the disease, also known as Hansen’s Disease. The board of health supplied the unfortunates with food and clothing, but was unable in the beginning to provide them with either resident physicians or nurses. On 10 May, 1873, Father Damien, at his own request and with the sanction of his bishop, arrived at the settlement as its resident priest. There were then 600 lepers.

“As long as the lepers can care for themselves”, wrote the superintendent of the board of health to Bishop Maigret, “they are comparatively comfortable, but as soon as the dreadful disease renders them helpless, it would seem that even demons themselves would pity their condition and hasten their death.”

For a long time, however, Father Damien was the only one to bring them the succor they so greatly needed. He not only administered the consolations of religion, but also rendered them such little medical service and bodily comforts as were within his power. He dressed their ulcers, helped them erect their cottages, and went so far as to dig their graves and make their coffins. After 12 years of this heroic service he discovered in himself the first symptoms of the disease. This was in 1885. He nevertheless continued his charitable ministrations, being assisted at this period by two other priests and two lay brothers. On April 15, 1889, at age 49, Father Damien passed, closing his 15th year in the service of the lepers.

Father Damien’s road to sainthood might not have been as difficult or as painful as his service to the lepers, but it was just as long, if not longer. In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Father Damien to be venerable, the first of three steps that lead to sainthood. Finally, the Vatican announced on Feb. 21 of this year that Father Damien would be canonized on Oct. 11.

For more information about the Mass recognizing Damien’s canonization on Oct. 15, and the incredible good he did in this world, please call (909) 596-1946.

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