Sunday, August 16, 2009

Searching for the Spirit of Blessed Father Damien

The pali (cliff) trail on Molokai’s north shore descends almost 2,000 feet over three miles and 26 switchbacks. While the trail and its cinder block steps are carefully maintained by the National Park Service, it still takes its toll on aging knees and ankles. The trail’s steepness and the lack of accommodations once you reach the bottom, account for the popularity of the mule ride, one of the few alternatives for visitors to the mysterious and tragic peninsula of Kalaupapa.

On this, my third trip to Kalaupapa down the pali trail, my feet felt fine and my step was particularly light in anticipation of the day’s activities. I was excited to witness a truly historical event. Hawaii State Senator J. Kalani English, who represents Molokai and Makawao County where Kalaupapa lies, would attend the August 2008 monthly town meeting for the settlement to issue a formal apology from the state. “We’re sorry. We’re sorry for the treatment, we’re sorry for the suffering,” said English to a packed crowd at McVeigh Hall. “You know you are special to the state and to me personally and it is time we recognize that.” Sen. English admitted that the apology was long overdue. To be exact, 39 years overdue. Between 1866 and 1969, those who contracted leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, were forced into exile on five square miles of windswept land jutting into the Pacific. In the 19th century, infected people were so feared and reviled that when the boat from Oahu sailed past the peninsula they were forced overboard right into the wild currents and waves. Many of these patients drowned before reaching the shore, weighed down by the layers of clothes and valuables they bore. Those who survived the swim to shore were often the poor who carried fewer worldly possessions to weigh them down.

Once on shore, the survivors were provided almost no medicine or other supplies. A complete lack of building materials made it difficult for the early residents to find shelter from the winter storms that barrel through Molokai’s unprotected north shore. Lacking basic services, Kalaupapa became known as a lawless and miserable destiny. Many died those first years and were buried in unmarked cemeteries along the shore.

The Story of Blessed Father Damien
Then in 1873, Father Damien de Veuster arrived. A Belgian missionary priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Father Damien truly became a gift from God for those suffering under the inhumane conditions. Father Damien had been ordained in Honolulu and then spent almost ten years on the Big Island of Hawaii beginning in 1864, learning the Hawaiian customs and language. When Father Damien was sent to Kalaupapa at the age of 33, he brought hope and Christian love to a neglected community dealing with despair, drunkenness, licentiousness and abuse. He also brought a strong back that helped build churches and homes. Serving as doctor, nurse, carpenter, engineer, farmer, legal advocate and much more, Damien became a hero to the outside world almost instantly.

Incurable at the time, Hansen’s disease was believed to have been brought to Hawaii from China by migrant workers. Ravages of the disease include losses of limbs and horrible disfigurement. Although repulsed by the infection, Damien visited the sick and every house in the settlement at least once a week. Disregarding medical precautions, Damien ate with his people, touched them and welcomed them to his house. By 1884, Father Damien had contracted the disease. Five years later he passed away and his body was buried beside St. Philomena Church that he had built. In 1936, his body was exhumed and taken to Belgium to be laid to rest. Today, Father Damien’s statue stands in front of the Hawaii State Capitol and a duplicate sculpture is in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C.

The Apology
In the 1940s, sulfide drugs were discovered to stop the spread of Hansen’s disease. Yet the patients of Kalaupapa were still forced to remain isolated until 1969. Said Sen. English to the community of Kalaupapa: “Sometimes we act irrationally and the government has done that. From 1948 to 1969, there was no real reason to keep you isolated; it was the government being afraid, people not understanding.”

In April of 2008, Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 208 was passed. This two-and-a-half page resolution offered a sincere apology for the actions of the state through the Department of Health. Kalaupapa resident Elroy “Makia” Malo asked Sen. English to read the full resolution at the meeting and in front of his brother Paul Harada’s grave. English happily obliged. Harada, who passed away in January of 2008, had been a long-time advocate for patients’ rights in Kalaupapa and had sought a state apology for years. “We are very grateful for you to come here and give us this resolution,” said Kalaupapa resident Gloria Marks, who was sister-in-law to Harada. “I’d just like to say this is way overdue and thank you.”

Mrs. Marks and her husband Richard Marks started Damien Tours in 1966, which is still the only way for outsiders to visit Kalaupapa. In December of 2008, Richard Marks succumbed to a long illness and passed away at the age of 79. Shortly after Marks’ passing, Maui County Council chairman Danny Mateo called him “an ambassador, not just for Kalaupapa but for all of Molokai.” Besides being a tireless advocate for patients’ rights in Kalaupapa, Marks was also the last sheriff of Kalawao County and was the driving force in establishing the Kalaupapa National Historic Park in 1980. Jennifer Cerny, chief of cultural resources for the Kalaupapa National Historic Park, said that if it was not for Richard Marks, the National Park Service would never have come to Molokai.

The settlement sustained another loss in April 2009 when Henry Nalaielu died at the age of 83 in Kalaupapa. First brought there in 1941, Nalaielu was something of a Renaissance man, known as a poet, composer, genealogist, storyteller, guitarist, singer, craftsman and painter; a scholar and philosopher. He also helped organize Na Pu’uwai, the Native Hawaiian Health Care System for Molokai and Lanai. In 2006, Nalaielua published his autobiography “No Footprints in the Sand,” an insightful, sad, yet often humorous portrait of life in Kalaupapa. The National Park Service had recently hired Nalaielua to help identify people and events recorded in old archived photographs.

In April 2009, a bill was signed into law establishing a memorial within Kalaupapa National Historical Park to honor and remember Hansen’s disease patients. Of approximately 8,000 patients buried at Kalaupapa, only about 1,300 have marked graves. Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa, a group of Hansen’s disease patients, relatives and friends, will cover the memorial’s cost. But the interior secretary would have final approval of the monument’s design, size, inscriptions and location. A location has not yet been chosen. As of July 2009, about 15-20 patients remain in Kalaupapa where they still receive food, housing and medical care from the Hawaii Department of Health. Of course they are free to leave anytime, but patients choose to stay since it is the only home they know. Another 100 to 130 state and park service employees live in Kalaupapa on either a full- or part-time basis. The National Park Service recently held twelve public scoping workshops across Hawaii to develop a long-term management plan for Kalaupapa. Input from these meetings will guide the park’s preservation and use over the next 15-20 years.

Damien Becomes a Saint
In July of 2008, Pope Benedict XVI approved the second miracle attributed to Father Damien involving the cure from cancer for Audrey Toguchi, a former high school teacher on Oahu. This marked the fulfillment of a rigorous process that began 100 years ago with the overnight healing of a French nun. It was this miracle that beatified Damien, giving him the title of “Blessed.” Now that two confirmed miracles have been attributed to Damien’s intervention, the road to his canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church has been cleared. Damien will be the first saint with a Hawaii connection. When Damien becomes a saint on October 11 at a ceremony at the Vatican, the pope will give a relic of Damien, thought to be a bone, to Bishop Larry Silva, Bishop of Honolulu. The relic has a world tour planned that includes a visit to Molokai topside and Kalaupapa before finding its resting place at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu. A fundraiser at the Sheraton Waikiki in July raised over $100,000 to help send eleven Kalaupapa patients to Rome for the ceremony.

Mother Marianne Cope, who followed Damien at Kalaupapa and who died there in 1918, is also a candidate for sainthood. She was beatified in Rome in 2005. Blessed Marianne was a Sister of St. Francis and an American citizen who grew up in upstate New York.

Visiting Kalaupapa
Kalaupapa was chosen as the site to quarantine Hansen’s disease patients because it is difficult to get to and leave. Today, it can only be reached by small boat, small plane, or down the pali trail by foot or mule. Outside visitors are limited to 100 per day. There is no lodging or food for visitors. To visit, a person must either be hosted by a Kalaupapa resident or join Damien Tours, which can accommodate about 40 people a day. Tours are Monday through Friday, approximately four hours long, and include a drive through the settlement in a yellow school bus. The cost is $40 per person. For reservations call (808) 567-6171.

Pacific Wings is the only airline serving Kalaupapa with rates recently increased to $492 round-trip from topside Molokai on a nine-seat prop plane. For approximately $175 you can take a mule ride down that includes the Father Damien Tour and lunch. For reservations, call Molokai Mule Ride at (800) 567-7550 (toll free) or (808) 567-6088. It is recommended to make reservations at least two weeks in advance.

By David Lichtenstein, News Director for KMKK radio. He can be reached at
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