How About a Nice Hand

One of my favorite stories about my grandmother happened when nine members of our extended family took a trip to the Hawaiian island of Molokai in 1995. Grandma died yesterday at age 98. In her honor, I am sharing a few of my memories of her. Some of what follows appeared on my blog in 2009.

In addition to my wife and kids, my mother, my grandmother, my sister and her husband and his mother all made the trip to Molokai. The whole group went on sightseeing expeditions to places like Tuddie Purdy’s macadamia nut farm and a church built by St. Damien de Veuster. Fr. Damien had been beatified shortly before our visit. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

The older generation stayed back at the condo resort when my wife and I took our kids to the beach. While we were off at the beach one day, my grandmother saw a TV news story about a relic of the holy man returning to the islands. The hand of St. Damien was going to be somewhere in Honolulu on the same day that we would be flying home. Grandma wanted to see the hand before we left. Nowadays, it would be easy to Google the hand and find the news story Grandma had seen. Back then, I had no Internet access on vacation but I wasn’t going to let Grandma down.

We flew from Molokai to Honolulu on a Sunday morning. We had gone to a vigil Mass the night before and had some time to kill before our flight to Los Angeles. I took the group to Hilo Hattie’s and told Grandma that all I needed to find the hand was a phone and a roll of quarters. In the olden days, if you weren’t at home and needed to make a phone call, you would look for a public phone and put coins into it to make it work.

The payphone had a phone book with it. I looked for listings that started with St. somebody or Our Lady of wherever. One church after another told me the same thing: the hand had been displayed there but had since moved to another church. I went through a bunch of quarters until I got confirmation that the hand was at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace.

I got everybody to the cathedral before the next Mass started and eagerly went inside to see the hand. An usher pointed us toward a side altar where it was displayed. I had been expecting to see a hand that looked like a mummified Thing from the Addams Family. I was a little disappointed that the hand was in a small box, which they called a coffin. Grandma didn’t seem to mind.

We were told that when Fr. Damien died in 1889, he was buried among the lepers he served on Molokai. His body was exhumed and returned to his home country of Belgium in 1936. After his beatification in 1995, his “healing hand” was removed and sent back to Hawaii.

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