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Holy Relics Donated to Kalaupapa National Historical Park

June 10, 2013

A very special donation was recently made to Kalaupapa National Historical Park this past April, courtesy of Grandma Jean O’Keefe of Kualapu‘u, Molokai.  The donation consisted of three objects associated with the life of Father Damien.  Father Damien was canonized in the Roman Catholic Church as a Martyr of Charity in 2009, and objects associated with his life are now considered holy relics.  The donation to Kalaupapa NHP included: a fragment of the Saint’s original coffin; cloth that touched his head; and nails he used to build the original Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Church on Molokai. 



Photo Caption: Donated Holy Relics of Saint Damien.


The Roman Catholic Church has guidelines that determine if an object can be considered a relic and which kind.  There are three classes of relics.  First-Class relics are typically physical remains, such as bones.  Second-Class relics are items worn or frequently used by the saint, such as vestments or tools.  Third-Class relics are those objects that have been touched to a first- or second- class relic.  There are three objects displayed which are Third-Class relics associated with Saint Damien. 

The fragment of wood from Father Damien’s original coffin was collected when his remains were exhumed for identification in 1936.  His original redwood coffin was opened at Kalawao and again in Honolulu.  The original redwood coffin was then enclosed in another coffin of koa wood for shipment to Belgium.  Several pieces of the redwood coffin were collected in Hawaii and in Belgium.  What remains of the original is on display in a Damien Museum in Tremeloo.

The piece of cloth was touched to the head of Father Damien’s physical remains.  As part of the Sainthood process, Damien’s vault was again opened in Louvain, Belgium in the 1950s.  Based on the design of the Holy Card the relic is associated with, it is likely the cloth relic was collected during the inspection of the remains at that time. 

The nails were used by Saint Damien to construct the church Our Lady of Seven Sorrows in Mapeluhu, Molokai, about 14 miles east of Kaunakakai.  The church was irretrievably damaged by termites and burned down in 1965.  The church has since been rebuilt, but these nails were collected from the ashes for preservation.   

These relics were donated in honor of Saint Damien and in memory of Grandma Jean’s husband Michael P. O’Keefe.  A friend of O’Keefe’s contacted the park’s Cultural Anthropologist, Ka‘ohulani McGuire to set-up the donation.  Grandma Jean, age 93, wanted to ensure the artifacts are preserved and to educate the public about the history of Kalaupapa and Saint Damien of Molokai. Park Museum Curator, T. Scott Williams and McGuire came topside to meet and receive the donation. 




Photo Caption: Grandma Jean O’Keefe and Ka’ohulani McGuire (NPS, Cultural Anthropologist) at the time of the donation of the relics.




Photo Caption: Grandma Jean O’Keefe and T. Scott Williams (NPS, Museum Curator) 


The relics were transported to Kalaupapa by Tomiko Nishihira, postmaster at Kalaupapa since November 2012. Nishihira herself has personal ties to the artifacts.  Her great-great grandfather Andrew Poaha knew Saint Damien and helped to build Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church topside in 1874.  Elizabeth Keaka, Poaha’s wife washed Damien’s clothes during the construction of the church. Tomiko’s heritage line also links to the kamaāina who lived at Makanalua before the first patients were sent to Kalawao in 1866 – before Kamehameha I unified Hawai‘i.  “I feel honored” was Nishihira’s response when asked to transport the Catholic Church’s sacred relics from topside to Kalaupapa’s NPS museum collections facility.

The NPS (National Park Service) has specific procedures and requirements when accessioning artifacts such as, verifying authenticity, ownership and condition of the items entering the collection. If you have any significant artifact, please contact the Cultural Resource Management Division of the NPS in Kalaupapa to determine if you would like to donate or have the museum staff photograph to document your historical information. Creating digital images of the museum objects make it feasible to share the story of Kalaupapa and Kalawao with more people in Hawaii and worldwide.  The museum collection is stored in a specially designed building with a temperature and humidity controlled environment and was built to preserve the cultural and natural histories of the Kalaupapa Settlement and entire peninsula.  The Kalaupapa NHP museum collection facility known as “Hale Mālama” (house of care) provides a safe environment and is open for scheduled public viewing, families, and researchers when sponsored into Kalaupapa. 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric permalink
    June 11, 2013 1:46 pm

    Mahalo fo rthe great post from Kalaupapa!

  2. david preszler permalink
    January 15, 2014 10:39 pm

    That is my precious Auntie Jean! She is a modern day miracle and the greatest aunt in the whole world.


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