She walked with a saint Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, editor   
Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 -- 1:00 AM

editor's view by Mary C. Uhler

When she was a 13-year-old girl living in Belgium, Mariette Coffman walked in a procession behind a hearse carrying the remains of Fr. Damien de Veuster on May 3, 1936.

“I remember that the hearse was drawn by six white horses,” said Mariette. Father Damien’s remains were shipped from Hawaii, where the Belgian missionary had ministered to people with leprosy until he himself died of the disease. Mariette recalls that the ship landed in Antwerp and his remains were taken to Louvain, where he was buried.

Ever since that day in 1936, Mariette has been praying for Father Damien’s intercession. “I walked with a saint at that time. I knew he was a saint all along,” she told me.

Traveled to Rome for canonization

Mariette moved to Madison in 1952 and is a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Monona. When she heard that Father Damien would be canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11 this year, she decided to attend the canonization Mass at the Vatican.

At age 86, she made the trip all by herself. “I felt it was an obligation on my part to attend the canonization,” she said. She expects that she is one of the few people who walked behind the hearse in 1936 who was able to attend the canonization.

“I loved it,” she said of the canonization Mass. “I was seated just eight rows behind the bishops at the ceremony.” It was an emotional experience for Mariette, who cried tears of joy at being able to be present at the canonization of someone she knew for many years was a saint.

She was happy to see a large banner picturing Father Damien hanging right over her head. She also saw the woman, Audrey Toguchi, who was cured of cancer through the intercession of St. Damien. “There were a lot of people from Hawaii there — I estimate over 1,000 people,” noted Mariette.

Mariette said she had “lots of help” from people from all over the world, including Germans, Italians, French, and Americans. She also attended the October 14th audience with the Holy Father. Mariette returned safely to Madison. “I’m really happy I did it,” she says of her solo trip to Rome.

Connection with the communion of saints

Her persistence in prayer and the special connection she feels with St. Damien are reminders to all of us to remember our own connection to people who have died.

In November we especially pray for and with those who have gone before us. Our Catholic faith teaches us that we are all joined together in the communion of saints, defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the unity in Christ of all the redeemed, those on earth and those who have died.”

Many of us have favorite saints, but perhaps no one has been as persistent in praying for the intercession of one saint as Mariette Coffman, who has prayed for 73 years. She knew that Father Damien was a saint and she has been proven right. Now she can officially call him St. Damien!