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Maria Lanakila Church celebrates its ties to Saint Damien

By Staff | Dec 10, 2009

Father Gary Colton (fourth from left in yellow cap) celebrates with Maui residents in Rome.

LAHAINA — In so many ways, Father Gary Colton’s journey to Rome to witness the canonization of Father Damien two months ago will forever stand as a momentous occasion in the Maria Lanakila Church pastor’s life.

Along with a Hawaii contingent that included nine other Maui travelers, as well as former Maria Lanakila priests Chris Keahi, Lane Akiona and Marisi Palipali, Father Colton made the journey to become part of the historic event that drew some 80,000 devotees to the Vatican for the canonization of five individuals to sainthood, including Father Damien de Veuster.

But in speaking with Father Gary, we come to discover a real life connection between the Maria Lanakila priest and the heart-wrenching story of the life of Saint Damien and the residents of the Kalaupapa settlement.

“My father, Dr. Lloyd Colton, was a dentist here on Maui — we lived in Makawao from 1946 to 1952 — and part of his work was to travel to Molokai to treat the staff, but not the residents, on a monthly basis,” related Father Gary last week from the rectory at the historic Lahaina church, where Saint Damien once held mass.

“So this trip indeed held special meaning for me in that several current residents of Kalaupapa that I met at the canonization had relatives that knew my father. Dad would have wanted me to go. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” he said.

Moreover, as the pastor of Maria Lanakila Church along Wainee Street, he represents the connection of the parishioners of the congregation with the spirit of Saint Damien, whose presence continues to be a contribution to the loving, giving way that de Veuster represented.

A mosaic of Saint Damien brightens a wall inside of Maria Lanakila, and Father Gary reported that Maria Lanakila and Sacred Hearts School have purchased a life-sized statue of the saint that will be the centerpiece of a prayer garden between the church and the Kindergarten building.

“The Tongan community has made a base for the statue, and we’ve got a primer coat of paint on it so far, and the detailed work will be next. It will become a prayer garden, and we will be adding more benches back there soon. And it is all dedicated to the memory of Saint Damien,” he explained.

For most of the ten days that Father Gary and the throngs of people from all parts of the world, as well as all of its religions, were there in Italy, the weather was clear and beautiful.

But on the day before the canonization, a spiritual blaring of trumpets and drums — in the form of thunder, lightning and rain — came over Vatican City to announce the beginning of the ceremony.

The canonization was moved from St. Peter’s Square and inside to the main altar. Father Gary was part of the group that made it inside to hear the Pope say “Decermemus,” meaning “we accept,” the canonization of Saint Damien and the four others so honored on this day.

“I am still in awe that I was actually there,” related Father Gary. “It is like a beautiful dream to know that, for eternity, he will be Saint Damien. It is very special to know that I was there for that moment when the change was made. I will remember it forever.”