Tough wood reflective of Damien’s ‘strong’ nature

The koa wood Dale Zarrella used to carve his image of St. Damien was one of the toughest he’s worked with.

The Kihei sculptor, who has shaped many types of wood into artwork over the years, said that this piece was “stubborn and strong as Damien” but in a good sense.

“He was always kind to people,” Zarrella said of St. Damien, who was canonized for his tireless work with leprosy patients on Molokai. “(But) when in the bureaucracy of the government and the church he was strong and stubborn and outspoken. I like that about him. He fought for what was right.”

Zarrella recently completed his koa statue of St. Damien, which was blessed Sunday evening before at least 160 people at Zarrella’s studio on the north end of Charley Young Beach in Kihei.

Zarrella said a patient in Kalaupapa sent over rosary beads that were placed on the statue’s hand and a Bible for the blessing. A family member of a patient brought sea salt from Kalaupapa to be used in the blessing.

The statue of St. Damien, who was about 5 feet 9 inches tall, is life-sized but the artwork is 7 feet tall from its base.

The commissioned statue will be taken to Oahu to be displayed at the Damien and Marianne of Molokai Heritage Center in Waikiki. A showing is planned at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Kihei, but the date and time have not been set yet.

The 51-year-old artist will soon begin his work on a monkeypod wood sculpture of St. Marianne, which also will be displayed at the museum. Mother Marianne Cope became a saint in October and spent many years on Molokai after St. Damien’s death assisting leprosy patients as well as improving health care in Hawaii.

Zarrella chose monkeypod wood for Marianne because he said it’s a softer wood that also matches St. Marianne’s physical qualities. She was petite, while Damien was stocky.

While having his statue displayed in an Oahu museum is an honor in itself, Zarrella had his study sculptures for his life-sized koa St. Damien taken to Rome last spring at the request of church officials on Oahu.

A 3-foot-tall bronze statue of a young Damien currently is in the Vatican collection and a second is at the Pontifical North American College, a seminary school that is part of Vatican City, Zarrella said.

Before the blessing and even before he saw the newest koa St. Damien statue, the Rev. Monsignor Terrence Watanabe of St. Theresa Catholic Church said that he felt “wonderful” about the work.

“I think it’s great we have wonderful artists on Maui that have been inspired by Father Damien and Saint Marianne.”

Watanabe performed Sunday’s blessing with others, including Kahu Les Kuloloio.

Zarrella began his work on the St. Damien statue in October 2011, after venturing into the forests in Kipahulu under the guidance of kupuna who helped him choose the koa.

He said he was told that the strongest canoes had come out of the forest they went into and that koa means “strength of the warrior” or “warrior spirit,” which was “so appropriate for Damien.”

Zarrella said that the strong koa was not a big obstacle for him, but the wood just took longer to carve.

He added that when he was working on St. Damien’s face he noticed a tear mark just below the saint’s right eye.

That made Zarrella wonder: “What did he do with the sorrow” of seeing all of the suffering patients in Kalaupapa?

Zarrella said that in letters St. Damien mentioned that he never wanted to show his sorrow on his face because people there had enough sorrow to deal with.

St. Damien began his work in Kalaupapa in 1873. The Belgian priest worked with the patients there until he died in 1889 of the disease. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is a chronic bacterial infection of the skin and superficial nerves. Today, it can be treated by antibiotics.

For his work in Kalaupapa, Damien de Veuster was canonized in 2009.

Zarrella said that his sculpture depicts St. Damien on his second day at Kalawao on the Kalaupapa peninsula just after he surveyed the pain and suffering of the patients.

St. Damien is standing on the cliffs and next to him is a child under a blanket. Zarrella said that the child has no face but depicts all those children whom St. Damien would take under his wing.

“What the piece represents to me is the ultimate father figure. He was such an example of ultimate compassion and love and self-sacrifice. He did not only sacrifice his life for people, he did it with joy.”

Zarrella made two trips to Kalaupapa to study the area where St. Damien lived and worked and read up on the saint.

Zarrella, who is Catholic, created his first religious artwork when he was 18. It was an 8 foot crucifix that was placed above his church’s altar in his home state of Connecticut.

“It’s always an incredible journey being a creative person,” Zarrella said of his works.

The St. Damien sculpture changed his life.

“I look at the world with more compassion,” he said. “I look at the work as a service; it’s not a hardship. I definitely feel I’m a different person from what I started with. I learned an awful lot.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at