The Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu is said to be the oldest Catholic cathedral in continuous use in the United States. Over those years, it has seen the ordination of Damien de Veuster as a young priest and his recent designation as a saint of the church, known for his ministry to the lepers of Molokai, one of the Hawaiian islands.
Catholic priests arrived in Hawaii in 1827, seven years after Protestant missionaries were welcomed. However, King Kamehameha III expelled Catholics from the islands in November of 1837 “under pressure” from those protestant missionaries, according to the Cathedral website. Catholics were allowed back into the islands two years later when the king issued an Edict of Toleration that allowed Catholics to worship with the same privileges granted to Protestants. The king also donated land for construction of the first permanent Catholic Church. Although the king acceded to pressure from the American, British and French governments to stop religious persecution, the Catholic Church never enjoyed the sort of royal patronage experienced by the Kawaiahao Church or St. Andrew’s Cathedral (Anglican).
The Cathedral was formally dedicated on August 15, 1843. The building is made of coral blocks hewn from the same reef as those used to construct the Kawaiahao Church. When the buildings were completed, they were quite similar in appearance. A large stone tower was added later that houses two bells cast in France and a clock. Other major renovations in 1870-1880 raised the roof and added stained glass windows from France. This renovation changed the building from one typical of 19th century Hawaii to a European-influenced cathedral.
St. Damien was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace on May 21, 1864, two months after his arrival in Hawaii from his home in Belgium. He was first assigned to the Big Island. He later asked to serve in Kalawao on Molokai where those diagnosed with leprosy (now called Hansen’s Disease) were sent. He arrived in 1873 and stayed until his death from the disease on April 15, 1889. Father Damien was canonized as a saint on October 11, 2009. A relic of the saint is honored at the Cathedral. A gift shop next door contains much information about St. Damien and the Catholic Church in Hawaii.
St. Damien’s statue stands in front of the State Capitol in Honolulu and also alongside King Kamehameha the Great in Washington DC as the two people most significant in the history of Hawaii.