October 11, 2009 / 11:58 AM / 10 years ago

Pope canonizes leper saint Damien, hailed by Obama

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict created five saints on Sunday including Belgian priest Damien who worked and died among Hawaiian lepers, earning the admiration of President Barack Obama who sent a message hailing Damien’s canonization.

A pilgrim holds a flag showing Belgian missionary Father Damien as Pope Benedict leads a canonisation mass at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, October 11, 2009. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The U.S. president was born in Hawaii, where Damien worked in the leper colony of Molokai, caught leprosy and died in 1889. Obama said in a statement that Damien had “a special place in the hearts of Hawaiians.”

“I recall many stories from my youth about his tireless work there to care for those suffering from leprosy who had been cast out,” Obama said, adding that the priest had “challenged the stigmatizing effects” of the disfiguring disease.

“In our own time as millions around the world suffer from disease, especially the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, we should draw on the example of Fr. Damien’s resolve in answering the urgent call to heal and care for the sick,” the president said.

Born Jozef De Veuster, Damien went to Hawaii when he was 23 and 10 years later began work among the lepers, “not without fear and repugnance” at first, the pope said. He got ill and was “a leper among the lepers” for the last four years of his life.

The life of “Damien of Molokai” is well known to young U.S. Catholics but his appeal stretches to members of the broader Christian community such as Obama, who was baptized as an adult in the Trinity United Church of Christ. There is even a statue of Damien in the U.S. Congress.

Belgium’s King Albert and Queen Paola attended the ceremony in St. Peter’s, as did Polish President Lech Kaczynski, French premier Francois Fillon and Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos to celebrate new saints from their countries.

The pope also canonized Zygmunt Szczesny Felinski, archbishop of Warsaw when Poland rebelled against annexation by imperial Russia in 1863. Exiled to Siberia for 20 years by the czar, he was “a shining example for all the church,” the pope said.

Dominican friar Francisco Coll Guitart, one of two Spaniards created a saint, preached in Catalonia in the 19th century and “reached the hearts of others because he transmitted what he himself lived with passion, which burned in his heart,” said the pontiff.

The other is Brother Rafael Arnaiz Baron who became a Trappist monk and died at the age of 27 in 1938. He “did not know how to pray” when he began monastic life but became an example “especially for young persons who are not easily satisfied,” the pope said.

France’s new saint is Jeanne Jugan, venerated as Marie de la Croix. She worked with the poor and elderly, shedding all her own material possessions to become “a poor person among the poor” until her death in 1879.

Writing by Stephen Brown; editing by David Stamp

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