Sunday Magazine: The Making of a Saint and a Filmmaker

February 28, 2010
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Father Damien

Father Damien

It’s not every day a human being is made a saint, and equally rare when a film about a saint is made.

Yet, last year, both events occurred. On Oct. 11, 2009, Father Damien de Veuster was canonized in Vatican City, and more than 6,000 miles back in La Verne, Calif., filmmaker Jennifer Hoge was putting the finishing touches on her 46-minute masterpiece, “Damien Making a Difference, God Making a Saint,” which has already won two awards.

Damien’s story is fairly well known around the world. In the second half of the 19th century, Father Damien, at the age of 33, traveled to Molokai to serve the islanders suffering from leprosy. Volunteering for this ministry was tantamount to a death sentence, given there was no treatment for Hansen’s disease at the time.

Hoge’s story is more obscure. As the owner of Premier Image Productions in La Verne, she typically makes documentaries, corporate promos for YouTube, fundraising videos and nonprofit company profiles. Director James Cameron, she is not. Her budget for a filmmaking project is more likely to have two or three zeroes attached to it, not the six or more that Cameron’s Avatar cost to produce.

Early in 2009, like most practicing Catholics, Hoge was aware of Damien’s approaching sainthood. It was about that same time that Father Michael Barry, SS., CC., for whom she had produced a video lecture series, casually mentioned that he had an idea for making a video about Father Damien. She didn’t think much more about it until she ran into the priest again, about six weeks before Fr. Damien’s canonization.

Filmmaker Jennifer Hoge

Filmmaker Jennifer Hoge


“How’s my video coming along?” he asked expectantly.

“I about died in my chair,” said Hoge, recalling the sudden panic she felt upon realizing that Father Barry thought the project was already well underway.

Outside of Barry’s mentioning that the video be about “the touch of God,” she had been given little guidance or direction. Besides now needing a miracle, she needed a script, actors, rights to photographs and documents and a production schedule to make the October 11 deadline.

“If I was going to do it, I was going to do it right,” said Jennifer, a University of La Verne broadcasting graduate. While she had worked on “The Young and the Restless” soap opera and as both an entertainment project planner and coordinator for film shoots at Disneyland before going into business for herself, she had never faced such an impossible deadline.

While time was not her friend, she quickly found some key people who were. One was Damien High School’s Father Peadar Cronin, who had been collecting testimonials on Father Damien. Equally valuable, she heard about a small museum in Honolulu, Hawaii (The Damiaan Center & Damiaan Museum Leuven), which boasted a rich repository of photographs, artifacts and other memorabilia collected from the priest’s life and dedicated to his legacy.

The priest responsible for overseeing the museum actually knew Hoge’s mom, Stephany Reh, who is a lay member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the same Congregation to which Holy Name of Mary and Damien High School belong and Father Damien himself was a member.

Having finally gathered what she needed — copies of photographs, texts and letters translated from 17 different languages, and an outline her mother wrote based on her readings about Damien — Hoge pounded out a 46-minute script over two days.

“It was amazing what happened,” Hoge recalled. “We took his writings, we wrote narration, it just started flowing.”

A native suffering from Hansen's disease.

A native suffering from Hansen's disease.

In her video, she scripted segments in which Father Barry and Father Martin O’ Laoghlen, SS.CC., would address various aspects of Damien’s life, but their responses reflected more deeply on the meaning of Catholicism and Damien’s calling to the priesthood. On the day Hoge was shooting, Father John Roche, SS.CC., also happened to be at Holy Name of Mary church in San Dimas. After overhearing him talk about the ravaging effects of leprosy, she wanted to hear more from this serendipitous visitor, whose appearance she saw as divine intervention.

“He said he had been totally influenced by Father Damien,” Hoge recalled. “He had read a book about Damien when he was 7-years-old, and knew then that he wanted to be a priest. Like Damien, he didn’t want to be a parish priest. He wanted to be out with the lepers, so he went to India to become a paramedic for leprosy.

“At this point, the touch of God that Father Barry had suggested became very apparent to me,” Hoge said. “I knew at that moment what he meant. While Damien had dedicated himself to making a difference, God was making a saint.”

God was also, it seemed, busy transforming Hoge, who had suffered her own recent personal losses, into a more devout believer. She saw the example of Damien’s life shining on her own.

“God wanted all these other events to happen around Damien,” Hoge said, the enthusiasm welling up in her voice. “Damien accepted them with total abandonment. He thought he was going to Molokai for three months, and when he gets there, the bishop tells him he has to stay on the island for the rest of his life … that he could never return to the mainland, that the government wouldn’t let him leave.”

In the video, the narrator shares how lepers were pushed off boats and left to swim to shore. If they drowned, so be it, they were going to die anyway.

In her heart, Hoge knew that she needed a unique voice to bring Father Damien’s amazing story and testimony to life. Father Barry said he could call an old friend, actor and comedian Tom Wilson, best known for his role as Biff Tannen in the “Back to the Future Trilogy.” Not long after, she learned Wilson wanted to be part of her project.

Tom Wilson in studio, photographed by Courtney Droke for La Verne Magazine.

Tom Wilson in studio, photographed by Courtney Droke for La Verne Magazine.


Everything was falling into place, as if a higher authority were now sitting in her director’s chair. That presence is still being felt.


“Damien Making a Difference, God Making a Saint” recently received an Award of Merit in filmmaking from the “Accolade” competition and a “Big Kahuna” from the Hawaii Film Festival. Hoge will also be in Honolulu on April 25 to premiere her film, where it is in the running for other top honors. The viewing audience will help determine the top award winners.

No doubt the film will impact all who see it. It has already irrevocably changed how Hoge views her own life and her unique relationship with Catholicism.

“Prior to making the film, all these things had been happening in my own life, when it just hit me,” she said. “This was all supposed to happen. I was supposed to be the one to tell Damien’s story. I was supposed to be the one to write it and to shoot it and to edit it.”

The hard work of writing, directing and producing “Damien Making a Difference, God Making a Saint” behind her now, she is now moving on to other projects, mindful of that earthly saying “That God helps those that help themselves.”

Touched by God, she is touching an increasing number of clients with her unique video journalistic style and artistic cinematography. Whatever world she is working in – corporate, nonprofit or the world of the saints — she continues to answer her calling in more ways than one.

To view samples of her recent productions, visit

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