Thursday, May 10, 2012
Pastor leaving Fairhaven for former leper colony in Hawaii
FAIRHAVEN May10th 2012 — The Rev. Patrick Killilea (from Co. Galway, Ireland) always imagined he would live in the SouthCoast of Mass until the end of his career. Killilea, affectionately known as Father Pat among his parishioners, has spent the past 13 years in Fairhaven and has only had two assignments outside the area since he was ordained in 1969.
"I was always glad to come back home," Killilea said while sitting in the rectory conference room Tuesday.
But a trip to a former leper colony on Kalaupapa, Hawaii, in 2004, changed everything. Killilea, who is now 68 but "only admits to 48 publicly," couldn't imagine not returning.
"I just got a feeling during Mass there, completely out of the blue, that there was a calling for me to stay," he said. "I had never anticipated that level of flashbacks and excitement even for a year after I returned. It was a heavenly call from God to go back." Killilea had returned to Kalaupapa once before in 2006 as the parish's fill-in pastor for three months. In July, Killilea will be leaving his post as pastor at the Sacred Heart Congregation's St. Mary Church on Main Street to return as the permanent pastor at the St. Francis Parish in Kalaupapa.
Most learn about leprosy's disfiguring effects in tales of biblical times. In previous eras, those with leprosy, also called Hansen's disease, were sent to secluded colonies in order to avoid infecting others. In Hawaii, the infected were sent to Kalaupapa, an isolated peninsula on the island of Molokai. Today Hansen's disease, a bacterial infection that damages the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes, is treatable with antibiotics, saving patients from disfigurement. Because of this, Kalaupapa has not been used as a colony since 1969 and is now a national park. Fewer than 20 patients, most of them elderly, still live in Kalaupapa, along with national park workers.
"Some of the patients there have visible disfigurements but others received medicine in time and just look like you or me," Killilea said. "Now a big problem they face is that their immune system has been compromised so they are vulnerable to other diseases." The island is also the spot where one of Killilea's role models, St. Damien, also a father for the Sacred Heart Congregation, first settled in 1873. Damien lived in Kalaupapa for 16 years caring for those with Hansen's disease until he succumbed to it himself. "Now it's much different than in St. Damien's times," said Killilea. "The patients there chose to be there and are well taken care of, but it is still very isolated."
Sharp volcanic cliffs separate the Kalaupapa peninsula from more populated portions of the island of Molokai. Hiking to town would take up to two hours, and the peninsula is otherwise only accessible by a lone airstrip, which brings the peninsula supplies. Killilea's passion for his future assignment is visible as he draws a map of the "shark-shaped island." He leans forward and speaks quickly as he describes the many mongooses he saw during his last visit to Kalaupapa.
The wildlife and year-round 80-degree weather are far from the only differences Killilea will experience once he moves. "I don't expect to have many people in church, but I will help build morale," Killilea said. Kalaupapa is a low-income community, and most who grow up on Molokai eventually leave to seek more employment opportunities on other islands or in the mainland United States. "I'll miss the sacramental celebrations like baptisms and weddings," he said. "But I won't miss shoveling the snow."
Killilea will, of course, also miss the people of Greater New Bedford, who have been his congregation for the past 13 years. And parishioner Charlie Murphy, a town selectman, will miss him, too. "We won't know how much we miss him until he's gone," Murphy said. "But for years, it has been his dream to live in the land of Damien, so we're happy for him." Killilea's leaving does not mean goodbye forever. In October, Murphy will lead a trip with 15 Fairhaven pilgrims to Hawaii to learn about the history of St. Damien's association with the island and, of course, to visit Killilea. Referencing the Hawaiian word that means both goodbye and hello, Murphy vowed that Killilea's leaving "isn't farewell." "It's aloha," he said.
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