By David Zax via The Big Roundtable
It was a little over a decade ago that Audrey Toguchi, a retired Hawaiian schoolteacher, first visited Father Damien’s grave on the island of Molokai. Passing through the gate in a low cobblestone wall, where stray cats sometimes rested in the shade of St. Philomena Church, Mrs. Toguchi and her two sisters entered the graveyard. A few palm trees twisted towards the sky; beyond those stretched the open sea. Mrs. Toguchi walked to the side of the church and came to the grave, a tall marble monument festooned with rosaries and leis. She began to silently pray. Please, Father Damien. Put in a good word for me.
She had not traveled far. As an airplane climbs above Honolulu, the island of Molokai is often visible as a small blue mass, though dim and distant enough to waver like a mirage. Approached from the north, Molokai is a fortress: a vast wall of seacliffs rises above the surf, towering thousands of feet high and stretching for miles from end to end. Near the midpoint of that wall there juts from the base, suddenly and improbably, a low, level shelf of land that the early Hawaiians called Kalaupapa (“flat leaf”). That peninsula has a peculiar history. When, in the mid 19th century, leprosy grew rampant in the Hawaiian islands and panicked public health officials sought a suitable place to isolate the ill, they turned to the small tongue of land protruding from the north face of Molokai. Bound by the sea on all sides and walled off from the rest of the island by the tall cliffs to the rear, Kalaupapa was a natural prison.
It was a dark chapter in Hawaiian history. Bounty hunters roamed the islands in search of suspected leprosy cases; families were torn apart by what they called “the separating sickness.” Since there was no cure for leprosy, to be sentenced to Molokai was to be sentenced to death. The prisoner-patients arrived by the boatload, and if the surf was too rough for landing, they might be cast into the sea and made to swim to shore. Misery reigned on the peninsula, which acquired an unofficial motto: Aole kanawai ma keia wahi — in this place there is no law.
Into this land of exile came Father Damien de Veuster. The young Belgian missionary volunteered, in 1873, to go to the forsaken place — “the self-exiled priest,” one admirer later described him, “the one clean man in the midst of his flock of lepers.”
Newspapers trumpeted his good works, with reports of how he tended to the sick, how he built churches and homes, how he consoled the dying with promises of an afterlife. His bravery and charity became the stuff of legend, and upon his death, many clamored for his canonization. Though he might have seemed a shoo-in for sainthood, a small minority cast doubts on Damien’s character, claiming the man had “lived evilly” with women. Without believing the darkest of the charges, some members of Damien’s own missionary, Order of the Sacred Hearts, were reluctant, at first, to advance a cause for his sainthood.
But by the mid-20th century, Damien’s order finally proposed him for canonization, beginning a long vetting process by the Vatican. Damien’s body was exhumed from its grave on Molokai and returned to his native Belgium; soon, the Church began to pore over all writings by and about Damien for clues to his life. By the late 1990s, the Vatican had declared Damien “Blessed,” an intermediate step towards sainthood. However, one crucial piece of evidence of Damien’s sanctity was still missing: a miracle. According to Catholic doctrine, God is the ultimate font of all miracles, but saints, like members of the president’s cabinet, can sometimes persuade the executive to act. If Damien had indeed made it to heaven — if his life had indeed been virtuous — then he ought to have influence with God: he ought to be able to deliver a miracle.
By September of 1998, Audrey Toguchi needed a miracle. An X-ray had revealed three wispy masses in Mrs. Toguchi’s lungs: metastases from a tumor originally found near her hip. The doctors told her that surgery was impossible, and that chemotherapy might extend her life a few months at most. Her surgeon, Dr. Walter Chang, told her there was nothing he could do. The cancer would take her life.
Declining the chemo, Mrs. Toguchi turned exclusively to prayer. She had been deeply devout and prayerful from an early age. Throughout her life, she had prevailed on the Holy Spirit, or the Blessed Mother, or Saint Joseph, or many other saints for help in matters great or small: during her exams in college, which she was the first in her family to attend; or much later, when her husband was ill; or most recently, the time she had to negotiate with a rude contractor. She said her rosary three times a day and never missed a weekend mass at St. Elizabeth Church, her vibrant congregation in Aiea, the Honolulu suburb in which she lived. Her whole world was prayer, she’d say.
That piety ran in the family. Her sister Velma could rustle up prayers around the diocese the way a deft canvasser turns out votes, and when she had learned of her sister’s illness, Velma had called upon the nuns of Regina Pacis, the retired priests of the St. Patrick Monastery, and the children of Kapahulu Pre-School. She also phoned a Sacred Hearts priest she knew named Father Christopher Keahi, and asked him for advice. Father Keahi suggested that Mrs. Toguchi might pray to Father Damien. Who better, he suggested, than this man who had loved and cared for afflicted Hawaiians?
The idea resonated with Mrs. Toguchi: her own aunt, uncle, and grandfather had all been banished to Kalaupapa. And she could still remember the day when she was only eight years old and Damien’s coffin was paraded down 4th Street in Honolulu, passing many tearful observers on its way to the wharf, and then to Belgium. She never forgot how he had earned the people’s aloha, their love.
She eagerly told another priest, her longtime friend Dan MacNichol, of her plan to visit Molokai. After they spoke, Father MacNichol, who had seen terminal patients in denial before, got out his calendar to see if he had time next month to perform a funeral.
Then something remarkable happened. Upon her return to Honolulu, Mrs. Toguchi’s doctors noticed something unusual in a follow-up X-ray. It appeared that her cancer — her vicious, aggressive, metastasized cancer — hadn’t spread at all. In fact, looking closely, it seemed to the doctors as though one of the masses had become smaller. Another X-ray the following month showed all three masses were shrinking, and one the month after that showed them smaller yet. Finally, an X-ray in early spring showed her lungs to be completely clear. “She appears to have had a spontaneous complete remission, which is unexplained and thus far durable,” her oncologist noted in a report.
As word spread from one member to another of Mrs. Toguchi’s team of doctors, no one could explain what had happened. It was simply unheard of for someone to survive a pleiomorphic liposarcoma with lung metastases.
“I don’t know how you did it,” one of her doctors told her.
But it hadn’t been her, Mrs. Toguchi explained serenely. She had had help, she said, from above.
If the question of whether Father Damien was worthy of heaven concerned the Vatican, it had concerned Damien even more. His whole life was an attempt to answer it.
Born Joseph de Veuster in Belgium in 1840, to a family of farmers, he was seized with religious fervor at a young age, enthralled by the stories his mother read from a book of saints’ lives. By his teenaged years, he felt certain it was God’s will for him to become a priest like his older brother Pamphile, and that to refuse the call would jeopardize his eternal soul: “the choice of a life to which God calls us decides our happiness after this life,” he wrote his parents. “[I]f God calls me, I must obey.”
He joined a missionary order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and chose the name Damien after a patron saint of doctors. A photograph taken when he was 23 shows him standing in imitation of St. Francis Xavier, a crucifix held to his chest, his smooth plump face pursed in seriousness.
Damien prayed to St. Francis that he might be sent to the missions. Soon, his chance came; Sacred Hearts missionaries were needed in Hawaii. “Farewell, my dear parents: we will never again feel the joy of embracing,” he wrote. He felt sure, though, that they would spend eternity together — provided that they lived pious lives. To that end, he encouraged his father to “think more of your salvation” and to “meditate every day on the love of God, on death, the last judgment, eternity, the gravity of sin, or on some other great truth.” He recommended reading The Imitation of Christ or the lives of the saints.
After five months at sea, Damien arrived in Hawaii — “a corrupt, heretical, idolatrous country,” he wrote — in March of 1864. He served first on Hawaii’s Big Island. “Ah! do not forget this poor priest running night and day over the volcanoes of the islands in search of strayed sheep,” he wrote his parents. “Pray night and day for me, I beg you! Have prayers said for me at home, for if God withdraws his grace from me for an instant, I would immediately be plunged into the same mud of vice from which I want to rescue others.” One day, finding a native Hawaiian making a sacrifice at a volcano’s rim, Damien met the man at the edge of the fire and “seized the opportunity to give him a short sermon about hell.”
After learning of the plight of the exiles of Molokai, Damien realized that he “was to carry out the plan that Divine Providence had for me.” Volunteering to serve at the leprosarium, Damien landed on Molokai on May 10, 1873, and spent the first few nights in the churchyard, beneath the cemetery’s lone pandanus tree. The only other lodging was in huts with the “unclean,” a frightening prospect.
In a letter to his brother, Damien described the symptoms of leprosy. Numbness was often a first sign; many learned they were sick only after scalding their skin at a lamp or stove without realizing it. Soon the body grew discolored, and ulcers opened. As the flesh was eaten away, wrote Damien, it gave off “a fetid odor; even the breath of the leper becomes so foul that the air around is poisoned with it.” Once, at Sunday Mass, he was so overcome by the smell that he nearly had to flee from the church. Sometimes the sick went about with worms writhing in their sores, like cadavers. “I sow the good seed with tears,” he wrote Pamphile. “From morning to night I am in the midst of physical and moral misery which chokes my heart; nevertheless, I strive to be joyful so that I can lift the spirits of my poor people.” He returned to his refrain: “I present death to them as the end of their troubles and their entrance into heaven, if they trust God.”
The graveyard beside St. Philomena — “this fine garden of the dead” — became his favorite place on the island to go and say his rosary, to remember the departed, and “to meditate on the eternal happiness which a great number of them already enjoy.” He even chose, much in advance, the site for his own grave, and once shooed away officious gravediggers who tried to break ground beneath the pandanus tree. They likely thought it strange for a man to reserve a place for his corpse when he was so clearly in the full bloom of youth and health. Those who saw Damien around these years called him “strong as a Turk,” “of good physique, upright in his carriage,” “a well knit, stocky man.”
A later visitor to Molokai said that to live in the settlement without catching the disease was like “a man to live in a fire without being burnt.” Yet in 1878, when he had been at Molokai for five years, Damien had few complaints — a slight tenderness in the joints and some tingling in the extremities, hardly anything of note. Damien’s continuing health was all the more remarkable because he was notoriously careless in his dealings with the sick, who were welcome in his hut at any time to share a bowl of poi or pass around a pipe.
In his letters, Damien professed to have little doubt as to the source of his good fortune. He had written his brother in 1873, “I have been here six months, surrounded by lepers, and I have not caught the infection. I consider this shows the special protection of our good God and the Blessed Virgin Mary.” The pious had their own preventive medicine.
The halls of Honolulu’s St. Francis Medical Center, where by 1999 the surgeon Walter Chang had spent most of his career, were haunted by the ghosts of Molokai. The hospital had been founded in 1927 by nuns of the Order of St. Francis, one of whose prominent members, Mother Marianne Cope, was Damien’s successor at Kalaupapa. The walls held photographs of Damien and his flock; of Mother Marianne standing solemnly by Damien’s bier; of Mother Marianne and her flock. Even a quick trip to Pathology required Dr. Chang to pass beneath a towering diptych in watercolor of Mother Marianne in full habit, overlooking the Molokai settlement.
As he entered his seventies, Dr. Chang retained the irreverent, impish energy that led his nurse to call him a “rascal.” He was surrounded by Catholic imagery day after day, but it meant little to him. He often brought in the latest anticlerical Dan Brown thriller, making no effort to hide the cover from the Franciscan nuns with whom he worked. Though raised Catholic, as the youngest of six children in a Chinese immigrant household in the nearby projects of Palama, he abandoned the faith young. As a teenager, he once asked a priest that if God made the universe, then who made God? Dissatisfied by the priest’s evasive answer, Dr. Chang had from that day forth considered himself a skeptic.
Nevertheless, as he examined the series of X-rays from Mrs. Toguchi — this one, with the three wisps signaling death to anyone trained to read them; that one, with the wisps having grown smaller against all odds; and these, the last, which showed lungs apparently free from disease — he knew that he had borne witness to something remarkable and mysterious. The work of a clinician is technically complete once the patient is cured. But somehow Dr. Chang felt as though his work had just begun.
Like many Hawaiians both religious and secular, Dr. Chang admired Father Damien deeply and had followed the news of his slow progress towards sainthood. Although Dr. Chang hesitated to believe in miracles, he was convinced that for the Catholic Church, at least, the X-rays and biopsies of Mrs. Toguchi’s cure might be seen as evidence of Damien’s presence in heaven. Those who know Dr. Chang well remark how his convictions can turn into obsessions. “When my father believes he’s correct,” says his son Carter, also a doctor, “he will debate or argue till he is proven right or the other person gives up and turns away.”
Dr. Chang approached Father Christopher Keahi, the Sacred Hearts priest who had first suggested that Audrey Toguchi pray to Damien, and whose hilltop office outside Honolulu is today cluttered with pencil portraits, paintings, and busts of the priest. In a letter that Father Keahi later wrote to a Sacred Hearts representative in Rome, he recalled the talk with Dr. Chang: “he told me when we met that he would challenge any physician to debate him in regards to Audrey’s case,” reported Keahi. “I tried to subdue his enthusiasm by reminding him that Rome treats such cases with meticulous and methodical examination.”
While the Vatican Secret Archives do hold the occasional dossier on the multiplication of food or on two ships narrowly missing each other in fog, the vast majority of documented Catholic miracles are medical cures. Cures figure prominently in the Bible, after all: the first Biblical prayer for healing comes after God strikes Moses’ sister Miriam with leprosy, and the Gospels report that Jesus healed many from that ailment and others.
But another central reason for the emphasis on cures is that for centuries, the Church has wanted its miracles to be well documented, and doctors are meticulous record-keepers. Following criticisms of the Reformation that miracle stories were sentimental hokum, the Vatican instituted stringent guidelines for what constitutes a miracle. A cure must be sudden, complete, lasting, and — most importantly — inexplicable by contemporary science. The Church privileges medical testimony, and it retains a panel of its own doctors, mostly renowned Italian (and Catholic) professors of medicine, who scrutinize the evidence submitted from around the world by miracle claimants. Very few alleged miracles make it past the “Consulta Medica,” as the body is called.
“In other words,” Father Keahi continued in his letter to Rome, he had explained to Dr. Chang that the miracle certification process was a slow and careful one. Dr. Chang had nonetheless impressed Father Keahi with his presentation. Keahi had fortunately retained his correspondence with Audrey Toguchi from around the time of her cure—he had a habit of keeping thank-you letters to look at in later years. He now transferred all this correspondence into a special file, thinking it might be useful as evidence.
Rome designated Father Joseph Bukoski, a Sacred Hearts pastor in Maui, to oversee any investigation into a miracle. Father Keahi thought this a wise decision, since Father Bukoski was well versed in canon law and had skillfully steered Damien in the mid-90s to beatification, the final step before canonization. For his work, Father Bukoski had even been knighted by the grateful king of Belgium. Father Keahi mailed all his Toguchi correspondence to Father Bukoski, since he was evidently “the best person for the task.”
Then, in August of 2002, the bishop removed Father Bukoski from his post on Maui, following an investigation of the diocesan Standing Committee on Sexual Misconduct. “When I was 15 years old,” the priest’s victim later told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “Father Joseph Bukoski gave me drugs and alcohol, waited until I passed out and then sexually assaulted me.” The paper also reported that Bukoski confessed to abusing the boy.
We live in a world in which dark truths remain hidden, in which those who are popularly revered are later exposed to have done terrible things. This is why the Church demands miracles, Bishop Larry Silva said one day, sitting in a parlor of the diocesan center nestled in the side of one of Oahu’s green mountains. “I think we have to be very careful about who we canonize, and I think this is why the Church has come up with this process…. To really propose that person as someone who you can say for sure, ‘This person is in heaven, this person is worthy of our emulation,’ I think those divine signs are important.” When Pope John Paul II had the chance to eliminate the miracle requirement in 1983 —many within the Church argued it had grown too arduous — he did not do so, though he did cut the number of miracles required from four to two. Later, he said that miracles were “like a divine seal which confirms the sanctity” of a saint.
A Consulta Medica doctor, poring over the Toguchi files a few days before Christmas in 2002, declared them “extremely interesting,” adding that it was “strongly recommended to summon a diocesan process.” In Honolulu, the bishop assembled a tribunal consisting of priests, notaries, and a physician. Over several weeks in March and April, the tribunal invited Mrs. Toguchi’s pulmonologist, her cardiologist, her oncologist, her radiologist, and her surgeon. The phrase “Catholic tribunal” may have first evoked, at least for Da Vinci Code fans like Dr. Chang, images of solemn stone rooms faintly illuminated by tapers. In fact, the meetings were held in a brightly lit conference room at the chancery office, where a water cooler stood inertly in the corner.
The tribunal’s expert physician, Dr. Philip Jones, began asking questions of the doctors. Might the radiation that had been previously applied to a tumor on Mrs. Toguchi’s hip have scattered to hit the tumors in her lung, he asked? Unlikely, replied the doctors; besides, the lung tumors only grew after the radiation therapy. Might an injection of doxycycline Mrs. Toguchi received have cured her, given that a related drug had been shown to cause cancer to regress in some mice? None of the doctors thought this likely, either.
In miracle tribunals, a cure is assumed natural until proven otherwise, a position arrived at through a lengthy process of elimination. Though they examine happier subjects, notes the historian Jacalyn Duffin in her book Medical Miracles, miracle tribunals share some methods of the Inquisition, which was similarly a product of 16th century Counter-Reformation reforms. Both types of investigation “centered on a forensic, even skeptical, approach to assertion, argument, and interpretation,” she writes, and came to be “predicated on doubt and demonstration.”
After examining the files of 1,400 miracles, Duffin concluded that one of the most helpful things a doctor could do in a miracle trial was to express surprise. In this, Audrey Toguchi’s doctors succeeded beyond measure. “Once this metastasizes to the lungs the ball game is over,” said the pulmonologist. “A curiosity,” said her oncologist. “Highly remarkable,” concurred the cardiologist. “Extraordinary,” said Dr. Reginald Ho, a past president of the American Cancer Society. In a supplementary tribunal conducted later, a doctor named Winlove Suasin confessed, “I’m trying not to be emotional about it, trying to be very intellectual, trying to be removed from my faith because I don’t want my testimony to be discounted just because I’m a Catholic. People may think, ‘Oh, she’s biased.’ If I was a Buddhist, she would make a believer out of me.” Suasin concluded, “Even Dr. Chang, who is not Catholic and doesn’t believe in anything, sees this.”
When it came time for Dr. Chang to testify, he navigated a narrow course between scientific scruple and inklings of religious excitement. “Now, I don’t call it a ‘miracle,’” he said cautiously. “I call it a remarkable, extraordinary event.” Then, as if worrying he had hedged too much, he ventured, “Now, it is inexplicable, unexplainable by the laws of nature.” Then, taking a new tack, he tried combining scientific precision with grandiloquence. “If I may, to the point of sounding overly confident, it is well evidenced, well proven, well documented, and well biopsied that it had spread to her lungs, and it’s now disappeared, and all the X-rays have subsequently showed she has no evidence so there is nothing to biopsy again.” Finally he said it outright: “to phrase it in a layperson’s term, it’s a miracle.”
The tribunal also summoned Mrs. Toguchi’s husband, her sister, her two priests, and Mrs. Toguchi herself. Not until she entered the room did Father Robert Maher, who held the title of “Delegated Judge” on the tribunal, realize that he recognized her — the perpetually smiling, wrinkled old lady with large glasses, fond of muumuus and the color pink, who could reliably be seen sitting in the front pews each weekend at St.
Elizabeth’s morning mass. As Mrs. Toguchi answered the questions put to her, in a slow, slightly raspy voice that moved with the playful lilt of a kindergarten teacher, she brought a new levity to the room.
Asked her ethnicity, Audrey, who is mixed-race, responded, “Chop suey.”
“How did it change your life?” someone asked her of her cure.
“I pray a heck of a lot for other people.”
“Every single day, I pray three rosaries and have a litany that I do, all made by myself. I walk every day, I have been told to put in one hour. And if you just walk the same path every day, do you know how boring that can get? But when you put your hand on your rosary and you pray, your mind is not on the scenery, it’s on, up there. And believe me, I feel sad for people who do not realize the wealth of help up there.”
Of Father Damien, she summed up: “He’s my friend. I went through hell and he was there, and so was the dear Lord.”
By April 16, 2003, the tribunal thought its work complete; its members sealed all documents and transcripts in a ceremony and sent them to Rome. As to the ultimate cause of Mrs. Toguchi’s spontaneous regression of cancer, the tribunal reached no conclusions. But that, in fact, had always been the hope. Miracle tribunals are perhaps the only form of investigation whose goal is to end in a position of ignorance.
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against such a notion of divinity, writing in 1944 that he thought it wrong to use God “as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat.” John Paul II admitted in 1983 that it appeared “cases of physical healing are becoming more rare,” and the rate of certified miracles at the famous shrine in Lourdes, France, has slackened over the past few decades. Might future scientists be able to account for Audrey Toguchi’s cure, even if current medicine could not? “Certainly we expect that there is some mechanism that occurs, but we are not able to identify what it is,” her oncologist, Galen Choy, had told the tribunal, suggesting that to predicate divinity on science — a constantly shifting, mutating, self-revising entity — carried risks. “We are to find God in what we know,” concluded Bonhoeffer, “not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.”
For the time being, though, as for the past 500 years, the Church continues to hitch the fate of its miracles — and thereby the confirmation of its saints — to the state of contemporary science. On October 18, 2007, at 9 a.m., after two diocesan investigations in Honolulu and many delays in Rome, the Consulta Medica convened to discuss the allegedly miraculous healing of Audrey Toguchi. The judgment was unanimous: her cure was quick, complete, and lasting — and inexplicable, in that it “radically undermined the nature of neoplastic pathology which inexorably should have led to the death of the patient.”
The Hawaii Catholic Herald, reporting the development near the end of October, cautioned that the case still had to be examined by a commission of theologians. Mrs. Toguchi’s cure had the features of a miracle, it was true. But, the Church still needed to know, had it really been caused by Father Damien?
(To read the second half of this story, go to The Big Roundtable.)
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© David Zax 2013