The Rev. Felix Vandebroek, pastor of a church in Kalaupapa, where a dozen of his parishioners have leprosy, died Friday at the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts Center in Kaneohe. He was 82.
Vandebroek had just returned from a monthlong visit with his family in Belgium, and wasn’t feeling well during the week he stayed at the center before returning to Molokai, said the Rev. Chris Keahi, provincial superior of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Vandebroek didn’t answer Keahi’s knock on the door Friday evening and was found on the floor on Saturday morning, Keahi said. The priest had heart problems and diabetes, he added.
Vandebroek was born n Belgium and came to Hawaii in 1956 as one of the country’s last missionaries. His longest ministry was at St. Raphael parish in Koloa, Kauai, for 24 years, Keahi said. He was transferred to St. Francis of Assisi Church on Molokai in 2007, the latest in a line of priests to follow in the footsteps of Father Damien De Veuster, who was declared a saint in 2009 for his work with leprosy patients.
Meli Watanuki is among a dozen patients who still live on Kalaupapa. She and husband Randall assisted Vandebroek with church matters. She cried as she talked about the priest, describing him as a strong man and a private person who had a sense of humor. They often bantered over who really ran things, she said.
"If I no like something, I tell Father straight. He say, ‘You not da boss, I da boss.’ But if something broken, I go office and get work order to fix. … Father say, ‘You and me, we are boss together,’" she said.
Watanuki said she and others would always laugh when Vandebroek would say at the end of a service, "OK; we pau."
"I miss him a lot," she said. "He was a really smart man. He understands everything."
Like the priests before him, Vandebroek "take care of us like their children," Watanuki said.
Vandebroek "was always kind and well-loved by people no matter where he went, especially on Kauai, where he was for 24 years," Keahi said. "They would always send him care packages after he left. Most of all, he enjoyed children wherever he went. He was sad there were no children on Kalaupapa, but I told him his children were adults."
Keahi said until another priest is found for Kalaupapa, he will send whoever is available on a weekly basis.
The funeral is next Thursday at St. Patrick Church, 1124 7th Ave. in Kaimuki. Visitation is at 5:30 p.m., followed by Mass. Tentatively, the burial is set for Sept. 10 at 9 a.m. at the Valley of the Temples in Kaneohe.