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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 6, 2009

Damien honors brothers at lu'au

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Brother Greg O'Donnell

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There will come a day when the last of the Christian Brothers will retire from Damien Memorial School, the Honolulu boy's academy the Catholic order founded nearly a half-century ago.

Of the 86 brothers who have served the school since its inception in 1962, only eight remain in Hawai'i, and only one, Brother Liam Nolan, who will soon turn 70, is still active as a teacher.

Yesterday, the school honored the brothers for their contributions in nurturing generations of Damien graduates at its annual lu'au at the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall.

"They wouldn't be honoring us if there were any of us left," quipped Brother Greg O'Donnell, who retired as president of the school two years ago.

About 2,000 alumni and their families and friends attended the event, many with their own vivid memories of the brothers' tough but compassionate love.

"They were really fun guys, but they were also strict," said comedian Frank De Lima, who graduated from the school in 1967. "They taught how to be men, and that it didn't mean beating people up, but being responsible and respectful. There are a lot of guys who paid attention to those lessons and went on to be successful because of that training."

At yesterday's event, De Lima recited the Declaration of Independence from memory and discoursed in intermediate Spanish as testament to lessons still retained from his freshman year.

There was no question that Christyen Flores would attend Damien. His father, Mark, attended the school, as do his brothers Austyn, Beau and Dylan.

"My dad said that it builds character and that I was going to go no matter what," said Flores, a senior.

Flores said he was initially put off by his father's stories of brothers who enforced discipline with paddles and smacks, but said that once he arrived on campus his fears were allayed.

"With the shirts and ties (a dress code requirement) and all that, I thought it was going to be a lot tougher," he said. "But it's laid back and you can be yourself and build a real brotherhood."

Still, Flores said there is a noticeable difference between the brothers and the rest of the faculty.

"They're a lot stricter, but that's a good thing," he said. "They build the foundation and they made a trail for us to follow."

The Christian brothers were founded by Brother Edmund Rice, a 19th-century monk and educator who devoted his life to educating young men from underprivileged backgrounds.

Damien was founded just three years after statehood to serve expanding Leeward and Windward O'ahu communities.

Led by Brother Thomas Regan, the founding principal, the brothers taught some 180 students during the early part of the day then armed themselves with picks and shovels to help with the ongoing construction of the school.

Through much of its early history, Damien relied on a succession of monks to serve as primary administrators and teachers who helped to establish the school's reputation for academic rigor and firm discipline.

'FINANCIAL SACRIFICE'

Until the mid-1970s, these monks received just $100 a month for their work, with no medical insurance.

Yet the mission of providing a Catholic education to families who might not otherwise be able to afford one 40 percent of Damien's student body receives financial assistance from the school is understood as a calling, not a job.

"Parents make a financial sacrifice to send their children to this school, and they rightly expect solid academics and a good foundation of character," Nolan said. "They deserve it."

Nolan came to Hawai'i from Ireland 11 years ago, hoping merely for "a change of scenery" and discovering a wealth of cultural diversity that he says has enriched his life.

"I had done all of my teaching in Ireland, so it was quite a culture shock," said Nolan, who now heads the school's chemistry department. "But it gave me a new lease on life."

Nolan is one of seven monks along with O'Donnell, Brother John Cullerton, Brother Lou Frick, Brother Patrick O'Hare, Brother Francis Popish, and Brother Thomas Rowland who still live on the Damien campus. Brother John Reilly resides in a nursing facility.

EVOLUTION SEEN

Though all but Nolan have retired from teaching, most remain active in the Christian brothers tradition.

Cullerton, who once played basketball for Gonzaga University, heads the remaining community of monks. Frick is a pastoral minister at The Queen's Hospital. O'Donnell, who rescued the school from financial hardship in the 1990s, teaches math at both St. Andrew's Priory and Waiawa Correctional Facility, and also volunteers as a docent at the Pacific Aviation Museum.

To O'Donnell, the son of a Chicago cop, the sunset of the brothers in Honolulu is significant but in keeping with the evolution of education in America.

As far back as the Middle Ages, O'Donnell said, men and women of faith assumed the responsibility of addressing specific societal needs, whether it be medical care or ransoming captives.

"Religious orders grew out of a particular need in a particular place," O'Donnell said. "These were storm- troopers who would take on these specialized needs. One of these needs, of course, was education."

In the United States, religious orders were established to provide education to Catholic students who faced persecution and social ostracization for their religious beliefs.

Now, O'Donnell said, "is that need as great? No, it's not."

"The religious orders, and the numbers of people who join those orders, has by natural ebb and flow declined," he said. "In the history of the Catholic Church, religious orders last about 200 years (after which) they either totally change their missions or they go out of existence. What we're experiencing now is a period of time when a lot of religious orders are finding that their mission is no longer so needed. It's like John Wayne: 'My job is done here.' "

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.