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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Moloka'i church needs help

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer

St. Sophia Church, home to Moloka'i's largest Catholic congregation, was built in 1938 as a gift to the community from George Cook.

Marie Sullivan

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"A Lei of Aloha for Father Damien" will be held from 5:30 to 11:45 p.m. Friday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Coral Ballroom, with entertainment by Raiatea Helm, Aunty Moana's Hula Halau, the Zack Helm Band and Frank DeLima. Tickets are $200 ($100 tax-deductible). For information and tickets, call (808) 553-5181 on Moloka'i.


Donations payable to "Blessed Damien Building Fund" may be sent to Moloka'i Catholic Community, P.O. Box 1948, Kaunakakai, HI 96748.

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Termites have nearly destroyed St. Sophia Church in Kaunakakai on Moloka'i, and parishioners hope to replace it with a new sanctuary named for Hawai'i's most famous Catholic, Father Damien DeVeuster.

Isolation, high unemployment and an island population of only 8,000 have made it a challenge to raise the $3 million to $4 million necessary to build and furnish a church. After 10 years of fundraising, the Moloka'i Catholic community has raised $1 million and needs only $500,000 to begin the work.

"We have exhausted our community over there," said parishioner Illona Honig. "We can sell only so many things to 8,000 people."

Now they are ready to seek outside help, said Honig, chairwoman of "A Lei of Aloha for Father Damien," an event Friday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village that is expected to draw hundreds of supporters, including Gov. Linda Lingle, a former Moloka'i resident.

St. Sophia Church, home to the island's largest Catholic congregation, was built in 1938 as a gift to the community from George Cook of Moloka'i Ranch. The 260-member congregation has far outgrown the termite-ridden structure and must hold Christmas and Easter services and other special events at the Mitchell Pauole Center to accommodate larger crowds. But even then, some churchgoers are left outside, Honig said.

"People from the country put up with it and say, 'Oh, that's OK,' " she said. "They say, 'It's a little warm but that's all right.' But it's not all right to be part of a church that you can't be inside and comfortable and really participating in your religion."

Honig said the congregation is following Father Damien's example in asking O'ahu to help. The feisty Belgium priest would often pester the Hawaiian government and the Catholic hierarchy for more resources to aid the sick and outcast at the Kalaupapa leper colony.

Damien volunteered in 1873 to serve the 700 Hansen's disease patients confined at the Kalawao settlement on the Kalaupapa peninsula. He died of the disease in 1889 at age 49. While on the island, he built or expanded four churches: St. Philomeno in Kalawao and Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, St. Vincent and and St. Joseph on "topside" Moloka'i.

Once the St. Sophia congregation raises the additional $500,000, it can begin demolition of the old building and construction of the new church that will be named "Blessed Damien." But the fundraising must continue to furnish the building, Honig said.

"That would be just a shell," she said.

Also attending Friday's fundraiser will be Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona and Dr. Walter Y.M. Chang, who documented a reported miracle that led to Father Damien's pending nomination to sainthood. In September 1998, an O'ahu woman suffering from lung cancer postponed treatment to make a pilgrimage to Kalaupapa to pray for healing at the grave of Father Damien. Chang documented the spontaneous regression of the tumor and its disappearance without therapy.

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com.