A crowd of people poured out of the yellow Yamaguchi school bus and surged into the church like the tide. They rented the bus to take them from Waialua all the way to Kaimuki on a Thursday evening to attend the funeral of their beloved priest. Some people flew in for the funeral from Kauai, because he was their beloved priest for 24 years. For the last several years, he was Kalaupapa’s humble, sturdy priest, too.
Father Felix Vandebroek had a way of being at home wherever he was. He made dear friends everywhere he lived. When he was the priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Honokaa, he would ride a horse with the cowboys. When he was assigned to Kalaupapa, he asked friends to mail him nails — hard to come by on the isolated peninsula — so he could build things people needed. He worked at many different churches during his 50 years in Hawaii, and people never wanted to see him moved to another parish.
"Wherever he was assigned he would adhere himself wholeheartedly to his parish family," said Father Christopher Keahi, provincial of the Sacred Hearts Fathers in Hawaii, the order to which Vandebroek belonged. "I have never heard a disparaging remark from anyone, but rather praise and earnest pleas to allow him to be with them throughout his priestly life."
Vandebroek died Aug. 28. He was 82 and had been a priest for 56 years. At the funeral Mass for him at St. Patrick Church in Kaimuki on Sept. 9, the church was full of people who came to say goodbye still wearing their work jeans and T-shirts. There was a procession of priests and brothers from his order, the Knights of Columbus in their regalia, the Bishop, the busload from Waialua and wiggly children he had baptized as newborns.
That was the one thing that saddened him about his time in Kalaupapa. Children are not allowed in the former Hansen’s disease colony. "There are no children, so no baptisms, catechism, or First Communion," Vandebroek wrote in his 2008 Christmas letter to friends. "I say morning Mass at 5 a.m. Two people. And a Sunday Mass at 9 a.m. Ten people."
Otherwise, it was a dream come true for the Belgian-born priest to serve where his countryman Father Damien de Veuster served more than 100 years ago. Vandebroek was worried that at almost 80 years old, he was going to be asked to retire. He was not the kind of man who looked forward to retirement. Instead, in 2007, he was given the Kalaupapa assignment, and it was he who led the congregation through the excitement of Damien’s canonization. He didn’t travel to Belgium for the ceremony, preferring to stay behind on Molokai with those who couldn’t make the trip.
"It has been hectic days. Interviews with journalists, TV crews, bringing them back and forth between Kalaupapa and Kalawao," he reported to his friends.
He also served in churches in Waianae, Hana and Wailuku, but his longest assignment was 24 years at St. Raphael in Koloa, Kauai from 1979 to 2003.
"He baptized, married and buried countless parishioners and visitors from all over the world," said Lori Parsonson, who served as his church bookkeeper for 17 years. "Sunday morning Masses were standing room only."
Vandebroek was at St. Raphael during Hurricane Iniki and oversaw the rebuilding of the church. As part of his many fundraising efforts, Vandebroek went on a daily walk around the church yard, which was once quite isolated but is now adjacent to a golf course. He collected stray golf balls every morning, asked his parishioners to wipe them, and sold them after Mass 10 for $1 in what he called a "Lil Grass Shack" along with local papaya, oranges and bananas. The tourists thought it was the most darling thing.
"When Father Felix was transferred from St. Raphael’s, not only was the rebuilding debt paid off, he left the parish with $305,000 in savings," Parsonson said.
Vandebroek was someone who could be counted on to help whether the need be prayers or Pampers. He kept Big Save Supermarket gift certificates on hand for those who needed food and diapers. He would go to the Koloa Pharmacy to pay for people’s medicine or to the gas station to pay for people’s fuel. "When Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai, Father Felix received checks totaling $45,000 in the mail from all over the world," Parsonson said. "He turned those checks into cash and immediately gave it to those local families in need. No committees, no paperwork. He just gave. So simple."
For an old-time kind of priest, the type not given to guitar Mass or websites, he navigated contemporary issues with great compassion. He never tsk-tsked at things like unwed parents or divorce, and would tell people, "God loves you. Be happy."
A memorial Mass is being planned for Father Felix at St. Raphael’s Church in Koloa on Friday, Oct. 29, at 6:30 p.m.
Vandebroek composed a simple prayer that he liked to share with people, a blessing that personified the idea of God:
May the eyes of the Lord watch over you,
May the feet of the Lord walk beside you,
And may the arms of the Lord encircle you in His everlasting love.