Dozens of Maui Catholics have begun the half-way-around-the-world journey to Rome to see Father Damien de Veuster canonized as Hawaii's first saint.
"It's a spiritual once-in-a-lifetime moment," said Pat Takushi, a lifelong Catholic and parishioner at Christ the King Church in Kahului.
"It's going to be an awesome, awesome sight," said Marie LaBanca, a Honokowai retiree who, along with her husband, Anthony, has prayed to Damien for more than a decade.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
Christ the King parishoner Pat Takushi of Kahului (left) and Sister Jean Larm sit in the sanctuary of the Kahului church on a recent Sunday morning. The two are among hundreds of Hawaii Catholics traveling to Belgium and Rome to witness the canonization of Father Damien.
"I'm really looking forward to being part of the celebration," said Mildred Chargualaf, secretary at St. Theresa Church in Kihei. "It will be probably be a chicken-skin moment when it happens."
Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Blessed Damien with four other saints during a ceremony set for 10 a.m. Oct. 11 (10 p.m. Saturday HST) at St. Peter's Square in Rome.
Father Damien, who was christened Joseph de Veuster in Tremelo, Belgium, is known to much of the world as Damien the Leper. In June 1995, he was declared by the late Pope John Paul II as "Blessed Damien, servant of God, servant of humanity."
Damien ministered to people afflicted with Hansen's disease for 16 years on Molokai, where he died at the age of 49 from the same disease.
In December 1999, the Vatican approved May 10, the day Father Damien arrived on Molokai, as his feast day. Last year in July, Pope Benedict signed a decree accepting the unexplained cancer cure of retired Hawaii schoolteacher Audrey Toguchi as the miracle required for Blessed Damien's canonization.
The moment of canonization is now less than a week away.
Takushi, LaBanca and Chargualaf are among more than 600 travelers who have paid upward of $4,500 for travel costs alone so they could be present at the canonization.
Hawaii Bishop Larry Silva's official entourage of some 530 left last week and is scheduled to be in Tremelo today for a hometown festival honoring the late priest and soon-to-be saint.
Seawind Tours & Travel in Honolulu, which coordinated the 1995 travel to Rome for Damien's beatification, was commissioned by Silva to do the same for the canonization.
The main trip includes stops in Belgium, and a shorter one takes travelers straight to Rome. Kalena Yim, co-owner of Seawind, said about 22 employees are accompanying the travelers. Seawind's staff made a variety of arrangements, from communication needs for traveling Honolulu media to medical care for the frail and elderly traveling in the entourage.
Silva and those traveling with him are considered "special guests" wherever they go, according to Yim, including in Tremelo, where they will help to dedicate a statue in his honor and visit his tomb.
"Everyone is so excited," Yim said. "It's a big deal to have people from Hawaii visiting."
In Rome, Seawind arranged for the bishop's entourage to celebrate a Mass on St. Peter's Basilica's main altar. Yim said most visitors end up at one of the smaller chapels in the area for a Mass, but Seawind was able to work with priests from the Sacred Hearts priests (Damien's order) to gain access to the basilica's main altar.
The group's visit also includes an audience with Pope Benedict.
Because of the size of the group, Seawind has hired 11 buses for ground transportation and spread out dinner reservations at multiple restaurants. There will be only one evening when the entire entourage will sit together for dinner - at a restaurant Seawind bought out for the night.
Some of Maui's travelers are not in the bishop's entourage but share the same excitement about Rome and the canonization.
Father Ramon Francisco, pastor at St. Ann's Church in Waihee, will serve as the official chaplain for a smaller tour arranged by a separate travel agency. "Father Damien inspires me," Francisco said. "I want to be like him with his people, to inspire them, give them hope and for me to lead them closer to God."
Maui Community College professor Vinnie Linares is taking his Reyn Spooner Damien aloha shirt with him to Rome along with a coat and tie.
He said he wasn't sure yet if he was going to wear an aloha shirt or the coat and tie to the canonization. Linares left Maui early last week and was interviewed by cellular phone during a layover in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
"I'm not going to get excited until I get there," Linares said.
Now, on his third trek to Rome, Linares has not visited the area for 10 years.
Linares, who has portrayed Damien on stage in a one-man show for nine years, will bring his performance to the Keawalai Congregational Church in Makena on Oct. 24. He has performed all around Hawaii, the Mainland and in Europe.
Sister Jean Larm, 74, a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet on Maui, was chosen in a drawing to represent her fellow nuns in Rome along with Sister Roselani Enomoto, a nun with Maui roots who now works on Oahu.
"This is like another gift from heaven for me," Larm said.
"We've always read about saints, and now it's our time to have one. It's very exciting," Larm said. Converting to Catholicism at age 23, Larm said her faith in God has been renewed and she looks forward to being in Rome. "To see the hub of Catholicism. . . . It's so uplifting to think about, let alone be there," she said prior to leaving Maui.
Like many of the Maui travelers, Takushi has socked away money for months in anticipation of the Oct. 11 canonization in Rome. Her husband and her family all support her decision to travel.
"Damien helped people no one wanted to help," she said. "I think 'Oh my God, I have to be there. I have to see this.'"
Chargualaf said she and her husband, Frank, one of St. Theresa's choir directors, decided they would go to Rome to witness the canonization.
"We started planning and saving ahead of time," she said. "We had to tighten the belt in certain areas. Some of our eating habits had to change."
Travel costs run as high as $4,619 per person, plus spending money, Chargualaf said.
She and her husband had their wedding vows renewed in Kalaupapa about eight years ago during a visit there.
"And because Father Damien was so dear to Hawaii itself, we wanted to be there and experience it."
Marie LaBanca and her husband, Anthony, have also visited Kalaupapa, and like the Chargualafs have been saving for this trip.
The LaBancas, Honokowai retirees and parishioners at Maria Lanakila Chuch in Lahaina, have spent a decade praying to Father Damien, asking for his help with Marie's health challenges.
"We feel we have a very strong connection to Damien," Marie LaBanca said.
Anthony LaBanca helped plaster a large mosaic depicting Damien on a wall inside their parish church.
They agreed they had to be present when Damien's name is placed into a book of saints.
"I think it's going to be really something," Marie LaBanca said. "Seeing the pope, being in Rome, having Father Damien and God watching over all of us, it's just going to be something else."
"It's going to be an awesome, awesome sight," said the Rev. Gary Colton, LaBanca's parish priest and pastor. Colton recalled hearing stories about Damien's work in Kalaupapa during religious education classes while growing up as a young child on Maui.
As a priest, he said, he finds it affirming that one of his brothers will be recognized as a saint.
"I think the publicity is going to spark interest or at least get people thinking about vocations and the priesthood. I hope it does," Colton said.
Following the canonization, a relic of St. Damien de Veuster will be brought to Hawaii on Oct. 17. It'll make its way to Maui from Oct. 24-26. The Maui Vicariate celebration culminates Oct. 25 during a Sunday evening Mass at the War Memorial Gymnasium. A dinner, priced at $8 per person, will be served prior to the Mass. Tickets to the dinner can be purchased at any Catholic church office on Maui.
Catholic churches here have all agreed to cancel their Sunday evening Masses that day so that parishioners can attend the service. Except for the dinner, the Damien relic tour events are free and open to the public, according to Monsignor Terry Watanabe, who is traveling for the canonization and heads up the Damien relic tour on Maui.
"It's not just for Catholics, it's for everyone in Maui County to come and celebrate," Watanabe said.
While the canonization may be especially meaningful for Catholics, Father Damien's life can be an inspiration for many, according to Maui's travelers.
"He was an ordinary person who did an extraordinary thing . . . plus he gave his life," Takushi said. "We can all relate to that."
* Claudine San Nicolas can be reached at email@example.com.