View from the pew
The Vatican museum was the setting for a brief feature clip on a network television news show earlier this month, did you see that? A reporter strolled with the keeper of the keys through rooms full of historical artifacts, the works of great and not-so-great artists, sacred Mass vessels and treasure bling and glitter from 20 centuries.
There was no breaking news involved, just more media fascination with all things Vatican, and, I suppose, an effort to report on something upbeat and unchanging to offset the rest of the news which is neither.
It brought back the memory shared with hundreds of island residents who’ve taken a tour to Rome. We who attended the 2009 canonization of St. Damien de Veuster can recall being herded, or should I say marched at a fast clip, through some of the vast collection, under threat of being trampled if you’d pause for longer than a peek … except for the fabulous few moments of gaping at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The museum memory sparked thoughts of St. Damien, especially since this is the season to remember the missionary, ceremonially and liturgically, on the April 15 anniversary of his death and May 10, his feast day when lei are draped on the statue at the State Capitol. It seemed a likely time to check in with a Hawaii keeper of the keys, Stuart Ching, who for the past seven years has been archivist for the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
A far cry from the grandeur and frenetic activity at the Vatican museum is the pristine suite of climate-controlled rooms that hold much of the history of the Catholic Church in Hawaii. The Catholic faith was brought to the islands in 1827 by missionaries from the France-based Sacred Hearts religious order. Documents, photographs, artifacts of the hundreds of Sacred Hearts missionary priests and brothers and the parishes they built and served are in the archives now housed at the St. Patrick Monastery in Kaimuki. The Honolulu Diocese also has archives, as do the other religious orders who have established here.
“It’s challenging for us to describe all we have,” said Ching. “It’s an exciting job, there’s so much potential. It’s incredible, the amount of things in here. I’m learning a lot.” He and a corps of volunteers are still in discovery mode with hundreds of photographs of people not identified and files of letters, journals and documents which are slowly being translated from the French, German, Flemish, Spanish and Portuguese languages of the priests. There are many unanswered mysteries in the shelves of the vault.
Ching took the job in 2010, after seven years as curator of Iolani Palace and 11 years at Bishop Museum. He faced a conglomeration of collectibles. Somewhat organized official records were held at the congregation’s provincial headquarters in Kaneohe, where the damp climate wasn’t great for preservation. The diocese had transferred early mission papers to the Sacred Hearts. Things left unsorted after priests died included prayer books and hymnals jumbled in a box, personal correspondence, an array of chalices. And “they all collected relics” but the sources of those sacred souvenirs are probably mysteries never to be solved.
Also on the shelves are an array of altar stones from churches that were closed or replaced, and they contain relics, not all identified. Recently added to the mix are boxloads of similar stuff from the Mainland branch of the Sacred Hearts, formerly based in Massachusetts, now merged and based in Hawaii. There’s a trove of Hawaiian language books printed by Protestant and Catholic missionary presses, and of books in other Pacific indigenous languages.
The best identified items relate to Father Damien, who served leprosy patients at Kalaupapa for 16 years until his death from the disease in 1889. The Damien collection had been displayed since the 1980s in little museum settings at St. Patrick Church and St. Augustine Church in Waikiki. His carved meerschaum pipe, guava wood walking stick, vestments, chalice, the pre dieu or prayer kneeler he made for himself were publicized as the sainthood cause for the simple Belgian priest progressed.
A mystery solved
But even among them, there was a mystery, and solved puzzles are the tales the archivist likes the best. Ching points to a displayed “royal medal” on a ribbon which was among the things held at St. Augustine, assumed to be an honor from the Hawaiian alii. But Ching, with his palace background, knew it was not. “I found a newspaper story from 1938 describing the medal conferred by King Leopold III of Belgium on Father Valentine Franckx, the St. Augustine pastor. It matched, that was it!”
The story was short on background information. I speculated that the king was thanking Father Franckx for having a role in the return of Father Damien’s remains to Belgium in 1936, an nationalism-boosting move by Belgium in the face of Nazi aggression. Ching does not engage in speculation. Another mystery he solved was to identify an ornate embroidered stole, a Mass vestment worthy of a pope, that had been held with the Damien museum stuff. Ching’s “aha” moment came when he spotted it in a portrait of Bishop Libert Boeynaems, Hawaii bishop from 1903 to 1926.
“We come across pieces, and eventually put the pieces together,” said Ching. “It’s a constant search, who is in the photo, what was the date, what was the occasion.”
A battered trunk in the corner of the vault is evidence of one of the best mystery resolutions which occurred 30 years ago. The trunk was returned to the Honolulu diocese by a California court in 1987 after being unclaimed for 25 years. It was part of the estate of a son of Dr. Sidney Swift, resident physician at Kalaupapa during Father Damien’s last months. Glass plate negatives of Father Damien on his deathbed were in the trunk. So were the priest’s pipe, walking stick and kukui nut watch fob. Whether or not the doctor was a scoundrel to take those souvenirs, who can say, but he turned out to be an archivist’s hero for keeping them. Father Louis Yim, diocesan historian, told Ching that he juryrigged handles with plastic pipe and wire because the original leather handles were broken and he needed to carry the trunk home. “I left them as they are, they’re part of the story of the trunk,” said the archivist.
He recently helped a family from Germany find pieces of their history. They were here to trace Father Liborius Hengst, who came to Hawaii in 1904 and died in 1954. “I showed them photos with him in them. Then I took them to his grave at Diamond Head Memorial Park. It was very important for them and very touching for me. I’ve been studying all the father and brothers and there they are buried,” Ching said.
Best kept secret
“This collection is the best kept secret,” he said. As he gradually gets it catalogued and in order, the archive is open by appointment for people doing research. “The archives are a stopping place for Damien pilgrimage tours. I expect a Mainland group in May and a group from Belgium in October.” He has hosted tours for school groups, a Catholic schools faculty retreat, and sometimes goes out to present a slide show, such as a recent program for the American Business Women’s Club. He can be reached at the archives email address: firstname.lastname@example.org or see the international website www.sscc.org.
“The goal of an archivist is to collect, preserve and give access. Ultimately we will make this material available online.” Nothing is ever released for outside use and Ching has to be present with any researcher on the premises. When St. Damien’s chalice is used at Masses on special occasions, Ching is right there with it for every minute.
He’s been working to bring primitive 18th century photography into the 21st century, digitalizing more than 800 glass plate negatives to put them online. Since more than 600 of those are of still unidentified Kalaupapa patients, he is working with Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa which helps families trace ancestors who were quarantined there. There are scads of other photographs from parishes’ events, seminary classes back in the day, which also were kept without benefit of IDs. The archives is constantly seeking oldtimers who might recognize faces in the crowds.
“We’ve been fortunate to get grants from the Hawaii Council for the Humanities and Delores Furtado Martin Foundation,” Ching said. “It’s a privilege to work with these wonderful things.”
“It’s a huge project, just getting the collection into place,” said Father Johnathan Hurrell, provincial of the Sacred Hearts order in the United States. The organization has spent more than $300,000 to prepare the space, which included carpentry to reinforce the floor in the century old monastery, electrical upgrades and climate control installation. Much of that was from the estate left by an island Catholic to provide for saving St. Damien materials. “It was a godsend,” said Father Hurrell.
He characterized the archives as containing “treasure” in the form of history and information that “reveals the struggles and challenges missionaries faced. Stuart is a treasure hunter and he is a prize himself for his knowledge.”
Ching showed a recent thank you album he received from St. John Vianney School students, who were assigned to draw Damien artifacts they saw and tell their stories, a variation of that “my favorite thing” assignment we all remember from school days.
I thought I’d like to do that myself. A bellringer in this time of religious intolerance is the 1837 edict signed by King Kamehameha III expelling all Catholic priests and forbidding “all those who follow the pope” to practice their faith. He was under the influence of the New England Protestant missionaries at the time; by June 1839, the influence of France and England had prevailed and a statement of tolerance was issued.
Perhaps the only stuff that might qualify as physical treasure is a case full of chalices of gold, silver, enamel, a few with gemstones, many artistic styles reflecting their European cultural roots, some engraved by proud parents for their sons who never returned home from the mission fields. After a hurricane hit Samoa, some chalices were released to be used again there. Recycled to new priests, not stored up as treasure, that would be my vote.
Seeing St. Damien’s artifacts, those treasured carpentry tools he ordered from New York, Massachusetts and Ohio to physically build churches while he filled them with converts, they always twang my heartstrings.
But none of the archives’ treasures brings tears to my eye as does the tattered little prayerbook of Brother Joseph Dutton. The former soldier and recovering alcoholic sought atonement for his past when he came to Kalaupapa in 1886 at the age of 43.
He worked as a builder and caregiver for the sick beside Father Damien and after the priest’s death, founded the Baldwin Home for boys and men, working until his death in 1931. Among the things tucked in the book is a Father Damien holy card to which Dutton had attached two tiny scraps of cloth, one from the casket cloth and the other from the red silk scarf that Damien used to support his disease-damaged arm. A memory of his treasured friend and mentor, held in his hand and heart.