A Hawaii resident whose recovery from lung cancer was called miraculous by the Vatican said Thursday that the Belgian-born priest she prayed to already is a saint, even before the pope canonizes him.
Audrey Toguchi, in Rome for Sunday's the ceremony in St. Peter's Square, told journalists that Father Damien's work with leprosy patients on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in the 19th century showed people they are all special.
Damien was born Jozef De Veuster. The Roman Catholic priest was beloved by the lepers he ministered to for 16 years before dying of the disease himself in 1889.
Last year, Pope Benedict XVI decided Toguchi's apparently inexplicable healing from what doctors had described as terminal cancer was a miracle wrought through Damien's intercession.
Toguchi, an 80-year-old retired teacher, told journalists on Thursday that Damien's life taught her hope.
"Damien's already a saint. The canonization is a stamp of approval," Toguchi said.
Through his example and through her illness, Toguchi said, she learned that "hope is very important, and if you have hope you can reinforce it." Wearing a T-shirt with an image of the soon-to-be saint emblazoned on it, Toguchi said her own role now is telling people "hope has its own energy."
Toguchi was among members of a delegation from Hawaii that attended Benedict's weekly audience in the square on Wednesday.
After doctors told Toguchi in 1998 that the cancer they had treated in her buttocks had spread to both lungs, they told her there was nothing they could do to save her. Toguchi said she prayed that Damien intercede with God, and every time she returned for a checkup, the cancer had shrunk, and by March 1999, there was no trace of it.
When the doctor realized the cancer was gone, "he started jumping up and down and said, 'I won't call it a miracle, but you better tell Rome about it."'
Another Hawaii resident who journeyed to Rome for the ceremony was Elroy Malo, a Mormon who was sent to the leper's settlement on
the island in 1947 when he was 12, joining a brother and sister there. Malo, blind and with a bandaged foot, sat in a wheelchair while Toguchi chatted with journalists.
"In my world, we looked at Damien in a different way" and "he helped us to get the world to look at us in a different way," Malo said, referring to the isolation and ostracism those with the disease have endured.
For Toguchi, Damien was a "loving man who gave up his life for the rest of us. All Hawaiians are his family whether they are ill or not."
Norbert Palea, who has leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, told journalists that "when you have leprosy, you finally realize what it means to be an outcast, but Damien teaches you that we are all our brothers' keeper."
On Sunday, Belgian royals and government officials joined Honolulu's bishop at a Mass in the small town of Tremelo, where Damien was born. Toguchi said she put a list of names of those who wanted him to intercede for them on his tomb in Belgium.
Honolulu Bishop Clarence Silva said the U.S. ambassador in Belgium told him that President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, was "very excited" about the canonization and that an official presidential delegation would attend the Vatican ceremony.