Father Damien

Aloha kakou e ku’u mau hoa heluhelu.
Greetings all my reading friends who’ve joined us on our excursion to lands unknown and unseen. Lands beyond Kahikiku, touching the skies of Kahikikepapalani. Yesterday was the canonization of Father Damien. The experience ended up being…..well…. I don’t know where to begin. There were so many experiences, observations, emotions, reflections. I ask you, how does one standing under a beautiful star filled sky describe just one twinkling star? It’s too grand…. And I suppose that’s how yesterday was too. Simply grand. So maybe let me start with my own family story.
When I decided to go on this trip I happened to be talking with my mom about the canonization of Father Damien and then this new thing called blogging. I told her that a blog is like writing articles only online. I told her about the Ku Makou E Hele Nei piece that I had written and how we were going to write about our Italian and Greek trip as well. We ended our conversation there, uneventful. Well, that evening she called me back and said, “You know. I remember your father talking about a letter. It had something to do with his uncle who died at Kalaupapa. I think it was a letter to his grandmother.” “Whoah, really?” I replied thinking how coincidental her recollection was as I did make a statement in the Ku Makou piece stating that every single Hawaiian family has been affected and impacted negatively by leprosy. I didn’t intend on researching or finding out about my own Hawaiian family, but now I know mine was as well. You know? Every Hawaiian sort of knows about the history of leprosy and since it was so painful and negative we try and forget about it. It seems that my generation sort of isn’t in touch with the story. Well… maybe I’m being too general and should just say that I hadn’t known my own story intimately.
The next morning my mom calls and says, “I found the letter. You want it?” Whoah! All these thoughts ran through my head. Of course I wanted to see it. My father had placed the letter in a ziplock bag and tucked it in a book. My great grandmother had raised my father for a significant chunk of his youth and this letter probably was kept as one hides a keepsake from others. So the next time I returned home to Maui, I visited my parents and they gave me the letter. It was a lovely hand written letter in a beautifully embossed envelope. The envelope simply said in the upper left hand corner; From Mamie Apiki, Kalaupapa, Molokai.

letter from kalaupapa
letter from kalaupapa

I gingerly opened the letter and began reading it. The letter writer was a woman named Mamie Apiki and she called my grandmother “Aunty,” as is customary in Hawai’i. What surprised me the most is that the letter was dated Oct. 1, 1941. Two things popped in my head about the date. The first and most immediate was that Oct 1 was going to be the day that I was flying to Rome for my trip. The second was, “1941? That’s not very far from today.” And then I remembered that people are still separated from the world on Kalaupapa. The letter returned $90 to my great grandmother which belonged to her son, John Nu’uhiwa. We are unsure if he had been inflicted with ma’ika’awale or if he had gone over with a friend of family member. My father said that his grandaunt had also been sent to Kalawao. So we are unsure if he had gone with her or if he had been sent there as well. The letter explained that he had left the compound to go fishing for the community and was found a few days later on the beach by another fisherman. A Rev. Alice Kahakuoluna had conducted the services for him and a Mr. Anderson was going to send the ashes and his personal belongings to my great grandmother.

The letter
The letter

Later I was sitting in Kona with Aunty Kalani Hamm who is a genealogy researcher. I told her about my trip and the letter. She told me about her family members and that she’d visit her family members in Kalaupapa every summer until 1976 when the last member died. She said to me, “You are going to this canonization as a pilgrimage on behalf of your grand uncle. Father Damien represents the sacrifice that we have all made. You stand before the Pope for the victory we will experience at Father Damien’s sainthood. You go on behalf of my family as well.”
These thoughts were swimming around in my head when we went to the ceremony yesterday. I am sitting here again wondering how I’m going to describe the experience of the canonization. Again it’s like describing a single star on the huge black tapestry in the evening sky. It was sensory overload. I didn’t expect to have any feelings about the catholic ceremony, but interestingly since I was raised in a catholic family all the rituals came back instantly. They spoke Latin, but I knew what was going on, when to stand, when to sit, when to respond. I did get choked up a bit a few times. Mostly because I saw similarities in some of our Hawaiian religious ceremonies, i.e. kaku’ai, hulahula & lupalupa, and the catholic ones. The blessing of water, the need for fire, the kinolau of iesu, and the mele kahoahoa that happens. The only difference is the bling and the angelic voices. The singing by the way was extremely moving. People from all over the world converged in the Vatican. Five individuals were being canonized. Four men and one woman. The other four were from spanish countries. Father Damien, however, had the biggest following. I visited the vatican the week previously and didn’t find any religion or spirituality, but yesterday I saw it, felt it, and heard it. So I will attach photos instead and you guys decide what you feel about. Sensory overload Gangeh. IMG_7094IMG_7130IMG_7140IMG_7207IMG_7349IMG_7071IMG_7089IMG_7237IMG_7441IMG_7379I took hundreds of photos. Father Damien became Saint Damien. People from France, Belgium, Poland, Hawai’i, Moloka’i & Italy were all fans of Damien. He became the patron saint of Lepers, HIV/AIDS, diseases that separate the inflicted from the others & the State of Hawai’i right before our eyes. I got choked up again when the Pope came out and spoke ten different languages addressing all of the different countries who came to witness the event. As he spoke each language the crowd spoken to would wave their flags and cheer. It was very colorful. You know. I’m saddened by the fact that I cannot articulate the event properly to you all. Just imagine a clear bright blue sky, encircled pillared walls, bright colored flags of all kinds, priests of all kinds, nuns of all kinds, brothers & fraternities of all kinds, and people of all kinds. Everyone came to participate in one way or the other. Everyone was joyous. Everyone was kind. Everyone had embarked upon their own pilgrimage for whomever they represented. When it was over the bells began to ring and the throngs of people stood on chairs, waved their flags, and sang or cheered. You couldn’t help but get caught up in the fervor. I think my family members who lived and died at Kalawao are joyous that I made the pilgrimage on their behalf. I think those who perished upon the shores of Kalaupapa may feel some sort of atonement. Maybe not about the Provisional Government who forced them to be there, but for the sacrifices they were all forced to make.
Again I feel that I have done a poor job articulating everything. Just email comments and I will be more than happy to respond accordingly.
Eventually I’m going to upload all the photos on our smugmug.com website. I’ve got some up already from previous days.

Ciao Gangeh!
Kalei Nuuhiwa
(c) 2009 Naleialoha.net

Voices of Angels and Saints

Voices of angels sang out while the crowd exploded to 50,000-60,000 in St. Peter’s Square. 

By 7:00 AM, the line to get in past security was more than a block long and busses continued to drop people off.  Dressed in Sunday best, jeans, disco bling, sweats bearing plumbers’ smiles and white collars from around the world.

A melange of languages from all continents were heard, but services were conducted in  Spanish, Polish, French, and Italian.  Although Damien is recognized for serving the people of Kalaupapa while Hawai’i was still a kingdom, Hawaiian was not spoken and neither was English until the very end of the 3.5 hour ceremony.

We were glad to see that both President Obama and Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hanneman issued statements abou the sainthood of Damien.  Governor Linda Lingle proclaimed October 11 to be Saint Damien Day, and Maui Mayor Charmaine Tavares urged contemplation of Damien’s exemplary life to her constituents. 

The actual ceremonies were held inside St. Peter’s Basilica, perhaps a change due to the thunder storm the previous morning.  But we were able to see and hear those goings on via the Jumbotron.

It was especially moving to see men and women of the cloth from all over the world.  The men had white collars in common but came in all colors, shapes, sizes and ages.  Franciscans in long robes and sandals, more formal collars paired with black  jackets of all fabrics, shaved head monks, and Jesus wannabes.

The nuns had more flexibility as their dress varied from plain layclothes and sensible shoes to habits of brown,gray, black and Mother Teresa blue.

One impressively-dressed group was a group of Hiroshima survivors advocating for peace.

Were we to close our eyes, the chorus of unseen cherubs singing hymns filled our heads with the glory of the four men and one woman being honored.  And the narrators for each language must have been selected for the purity of their voices.  The murmur of the crowd was respectful, crying babies were easily pacified and emergency sirens numbered two or three.

We kept our eyes open for other Hawai’i people. We knew the patients of Kalaupapa must be inside with their kokua, kauka and Audrey Toguchi , a retired school teafcher whose miraculous recovery from cancer elevated Damien to sainthood eligibility. 

But we also spotted Hawaiian flags, paper lei, aloha shirts and found some of the hundreds of local celebrants. (See Kalei’s photos of flags and stuff.)  There was no agreed upon Hawai’i dress, but dozens of men wore the Reyn Spooner Damien print aloha shirt, and other small groups were wearing Hawai’i-produced t-shirts.  had a chance to say hello to Uncle Fred Kamaka who was wearing,of course, his signature ‘ukulele print aloha shirt.

The halau hula, under the direction of kumu hula Leimomi Ho, stood out in white holoku, green silk lei and similar green flowers in their hair.  We watched the doubletakes they got as they flowed through the crowd; halau members now grace the photo albums of people from all over the world.  My cousins Vicky Achong DeSilva and her daughter Tiffany Kulani DeSilva were beautiful.

Initially emotional when Damien’s name, usually pronounced dah-mee-AHN, was first heard, the mutual understanding that something good was about to happen to some really good people filled the air with joy.

One of the first things Pope Benedict XVI recited was the church’s genealogy:  all the saints (although I’m thinking surely not all, as the saint index lists hundreds) and then all the popes.  As other holy men shared the pieces of the religious ceremony, it was Benedict himself who presented each of the lives of the five new saints.  When he finally made his way outside to the piazza where tens of thousands of us waited in the hot sun, the crowd literally went wild.

When all was done, rather than joining the mass exodus, Kalei and I made our way to some of the Hawai’i folks to say hi to family and friends, and then ambled our way 5 blocks or so back to our B&B.  A block from our place, I spotted some other cousins, Joe and Girly Ka’akua.

It is difficult to adequately capture the sentiment of the 3.5 hours of haps without sounding trite, but still suffering sensory overload, we are managing to throw down random thoughts here and will try to weave additonal memories into future anecdotes.  Photos, too, although check our respective Facebook pages for more pics.

Love to all…


Kim Ku’ulei Birnie (c) naleialoha.net

A Legacy of Love and Service

Aloha mai kakou,

There’s no doubt that being in Rome at this time is historic.  Throngs of witnesses, celebrants, pilgrims, the simply devout  and the simply vacationing now fill the streets, the steps, the restaurants.  The masses fill the Masses.

Father Damien is but one of five being canonized tomorrow morning and we will be there.  Our sidebar is full of information and observations about him and this weekend’s events.

But my friends ask if I’m Catholic.  My family, who knows I’m not, wants to know why I’m here.  Sister-from-Waialua didn’t ask, but quickly recognized that I didn’t know anything about the Book of Revelations when she attempted to engage me.  Last Monday night, someone felt it important to point out to me examples of greed, lust and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, just in case I hadn’t heard.

First of all, my primary destination is Greece.  Secondly, my travel dates were shaped by my need to be home for September meetings and the birthday of my favorite three-year-old, and the control of the airline that allowed me to bank enough miles to redeem them for a trip to Europe, but not Athens, and not less than three weeks.  In addition, `Ahahui o na Kauka, the Association of Native Hawaiian Physicians, and one of the Hawaiian health organizations I serve, partnered with the Catholic Diocese to raise funds to send the residents of Kalaupapa to Belgium and Rome for these canonization activities, so the events were on my mind all summer. 

Finally, while it is an opportunity to be enveloped by an exciting place in an exciting time, it is also an opportunity to see a man of great spirituality and selflessness be honored by the institution, the family, to which he devoted his life. 

After all, I flew to Maui to see the Dalai Lama (in fact, I also spent that day with Kalei), a spiritual man.  Why not participate in honoring  Damien, a holy man who served Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka`i?  Do not both men embody love, selflessness, the ability to overcome hardship, and deep faith in their respective Gods?

Damien arrived to Kalaupapa, an isolated peninsula, where people, mostly Hawaiians, diagnosed with leprosy lived if they survived the swim in from where they were dumped from the ship into the ocean.  He ministered to the sick, brought order to a camp created by exile and ruled without scruples, and created a thriving community.  When presented the opportunity to be transferred, he demurred and continued to serve the people of Kalaupapa for more than 15 years, eventually contracting Hansen’s disease himself and dying far from his home country of Belgium.

(You can learn more about him with a few Google searches.)

My mother does not know of any members of our family who lived in Kalaupapa, but many others I know do have such stories.  I have seen the massive cemeteries–Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, etc.–in Kalaupapa and Kalawao.  There are so many, unknown, forgotten graves, forgotten family members.  My daughter’s grandfather had a sister who fell in love with a man and she chose to live and die in Kalaupapa.

I would like to think that because of the influence of a man like Damien, that she was able to live there in safety, that she was assured of the well-being of her infant daughter when she the baby was sent out of the settlement to family.

Despite my lack of Catholic upbringing, it is Damien’s legacy of love and service that moves me to celebrate with others.  It is the man, his compassion, and his actions that I honor this weekend.

And I dedicate this post to my grandfather, Alfred A.K. Achong, and all his family–up, down and laterally–who probably wish I were Catholic.


Kim Ku`ulei Birnie                   (c) naleialoha.net

Evening stroll

Castel Sant'angelo at nightOn the Ponti Sant'angeloCarousel at night

Fountains abound
Fountains abound

Lovely first evening walking around with Kalei Friday night.

Castel Sant'angelo
Castel Sant'angelo
The Tiber from the Ponti di Sant'angelo
The Tiber from the Ponti di Sant'angelo
Preparing for Sunday morning activities at St. Peter's Square.
Preparing for Sunday morning activities at St. Peter's Square.
preparing for the crowds on Sunday
preparing for the crowds on Sunday
Kim Ku`ulei Birnie  (c) naleialoha.net


Grazie to Alohalani & Kalei for meeting me at the airport this morning. Unfortunately, they had to wait quite a while for me as 2000 people arrive at the new Leonardo daVinci Airport at the same time. It took an entire sweltering hour to get through the checkpoint where one shows one’s passport.

And may I say that most of the 2000 were Catholics? I stood in line near a couple of priests from Chicago and a nun from the monastery in Waialua. Father #1 declared he had been coming to Rome regularly for 25 years and this is the most crowded he’d ever seen. Great.  Who’s the patron saint of crowd control?  Father #2 took off his jacket with the rest of us. Sister from LA via Waialua is so excited that she found that the Hawai’i Catholic gang has a blog: http://hawaiicatholicherald.wordpress.com/.

It took another hour to wait for my one bag, then a train ride to Rome terminal, then a taxi ride through the newly increased traffic and I’m probably going to crash while the girls have lunch.

Last time I was in Rome was in 1992 and I arrived by train. My daughter, who turned 10 on the day we arrived, and I backpacked for 6 weeks through 9 countries, and yes, the count includes the small municipality of Monaco, and even smaller but sovereignVatican City. Travelling with a young girl with different traveling partners at different times, my one rule was that we had to have a roof over our heads every night. No park benches or train stations for us. Sometimes a roof overhead meant a sleeping couchette in a train to our next destination, but we were safe.

I remember being taken advantage of my a taxi driver, and I remember getting pinched in St. Peter’s Basilica (by an old man, yet!), and I remember how in awe I was that the streets upon which we walked were also trod by Julius Caesar.

I’m excited to be here, finally.  My Roman holiday begins!

But first,  zzzzzzzz…


Kim Ku’ulei Birnie  (c) naleialoha.net

Layover in DC en route to Roma

Aloha mai kākou,

My first post may seem a little out of sync with the rest as I am joining my travel sisters a week late, and I have just had a delightful travel day in some place other than Italy.

With 11 hours to kill in Washington D.C., my friend Frank has taken a day off to hang out.

I met Frank here in the summer of 2002. I was a resource to the area docents for the Kaho`olawe exhibit that was at the Smithsonian that summer and he was one of the docents. His brother worked for the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve then. That summer was one of the most exciting as there was some advocating going on at the time in behalf of Native Hawaiians and lots of local people were here at the same time. I attended a conference on minority health and meetings in the Senate building, receptions to preserve native languages and lots of time talking and teaching about Kaho’olawe–which is a story in itself. One of the funnest events was a concert at Jay’s Shave Ice in some medical-sounding name of a town in Maryland. The Aloha Boys played, and as the full moon rose and the evening progressed, scores, and then hundreds, of Hawai`i people arrived getting out of trucks bearing license plates from as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south as Georgia and all states in between. It was a lu’au, but the common repast was shave ice!

During my 3-week stint here in 2002, I stayed with an inspiring woman named Claire Pruett, who had retired from the Kamehameha Schools and was working in D.C. for a few years. When I told Frank what I’d like to give Claire as a mahalo gift, Frank, who is one of the most helpful people I know, picked me up in his truck and took me Ikea. Then in the back room of our exhibit at the Smithsonian, he assembled it and we hauled a really nice bookshelf to Claire’s apartment. There we presented her with something upon which to put her stacks and stacks of books.  Mahalo, Frank.

Today, we went to Arlington National Cemetery where each of us got tied up with a different funeral service. During my visit with dear old Col. Pops, I stepped aside for a military band, a horse-drawn casket-bearing caisson and entourage.

We visited the U.S. Air Force memorial–dramatic. You’d like it, Dad. We then went to the National Museum of the America Indian, most of which I’d seen. We enjoyed the Ramp It Up exhibit as skateboarding’s genesis goes back to surfboards and sleds and Hawai’i is generously credited. Lunch at NMAI was fab, and then we headed for Q Street NW.

The Cairo, formerly known as the Cairo Hotel, is where Queen Lili’uokalani stayed in 1897 when she came to Washington to appeal the American overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. I had been there once before, but it was worth another try to go upstairs to see the apartment in which the queen lived.

The CairoThe Cairo

Constructed in 1884, The Cairo is today the tallest building in the districts, as it is responsible for laws forbidding anything taller. City fathers were then concerned with a skyline that could obliterate the Washington Monument.

I’ve had a good day in D.C. and I have Frank Mokihana Enos to thank for it.

Off to the airport where I will catch my last flight to Italy and join the gals on the trip I’ve been dreaming of for a year.

Kim Ku`ulei Birnie

We Are Three

July 19, 2009 – the day we agreed to travel together