Pilgrims yearn to visit isolated peninsula where Catholic saints cared for Hawaii’s leprosy patients

Kyong Son Toyofuku was drawn to Kalaupapa, Hawaii. She had a strong desire to visit the remote Hawaiian peninsula, which is surrounded by steep green cliffs and dark, rocky shores that shine in the clear waters of the Pacific.

Being a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily, she had a strong connection to Saint Damien of Molokai. She had a desire to physically follow in his footsteps, pray where he prayed, and see for herself the remarkable yet eerie place where he dedicated his life to caring for those with leprosy.

The journey to Kalaupapa, known for its remote location in northern Molokai, presents logistical difficulties even under normal circumstances. Due to strict regulations, individuals under the age of 16 are not allowed to visit. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all pilgrimages and tours of the national historical park have been cancelled to safeguard the eight remaining former patients living on the peninsula. Officials from the park and state health department are gradually easing restrictions and determining when it will be safe to resume organized pilgrimages and tours.

Toyofuku had the perfect opportunity this summer when she received a series of essential permissions, allowing her to fulfill her dream. She was invited by the priest of Kalaupapa to follow in the footsteps of Father Damien in a location that had been avoided by most for over a hundred years, and where many would remain indefinitely.

The thought of Damien’s dedication to helping the sick brings her to tears. “I pray to him every morning,” she said, tears streaming down her face.

Lance Toyofuku, her spouse, referred to all the challenges as part of God’s plan.

He stated that perhaps only those truly determined will have the opportunity to reach their destination. Having a million individuals visit annually is not ideal.

Kalaupapa, currently a sanctuary for individuals who continue to reside on the peninsula, was formerly the government’s solution to a severe leprosy epidemic in the 1800s that carried on into the following century. The policy of containing the disease resulted in those affected being confined to a rudimentary settlement that arose as numerous boats delivered people who had been forced to leave behind their familiar surroundings.

Religious workers, such as Father Damien and Mother Marianne (who was also later canonized as a Catholic saint), relocated to Kalaupapa to attend to the physical and spiritual needs of the island’s new inhabitants. Despite the patients’ suffering from the disease and isolation, according to Alicia Damien Lau, one of the two Catholic sisters currently residing and aiding on the peninsula, they were still able to find moments of joy and means to prosper.

She stated that the patients were all saintly in a way.

Over 8,000 individuals, primarily Native Hawaiians, lost their lives at Kalaupapa. Among them was Damien, a Belgian priest who eventually developed leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease). Damien, also known as Joseph De Veuster, is recognized for greatly enhancing the living conditions in the settlement. Even more than 100 years after his passing in 1889, Damien’s compassion towards the sick continues to inspire people globally, as does the commitment of Saint Marianne.

On a recent day, the Toyofuku family arrived at Kalaupapa and were greeted by Rev. Patrick Killilea, the priest and unofficial tour guide. With his Irish accent, he welcomed them and they hopped into his Toyota minivan, labeled with a sign that reads “Fr. Pat’s Paddy Wagon.” Their first destination was Damien’s original burial site.

Lance Toyofuku, a resident of Hawaii’s capital city, shared that when he takes in the scenery around him, he is overcome with a sense of tranquility and connection. Unlike the bustling city of Honolulu with its traffic and crowds, this place allows one to quiet their mind and draw nearer to God without any distractions.

Damien’s burial place is located at the end of a gravel road, next to St. Philomena Church which was enlarged by a priest in 1876. The National Park Service, responsible for preserving Kalaupapa’s cultural and historical assets, renovated the church in preparation for Damien’s canonization in 2009. Although his body was transferred to Belgium in 1936, the site still holds a relic – his right hand was reinterred there in 1995.

Barbara Jean Wajda, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, stated that Damien had an unwavering love for the people of Kalaupapa. She and Lau, who also reside in Kalaupapa, assisted the Toyofukus in securing a spot on the flight to the peninsula.

She mentioned that he would dine with them and tend to their injuries, regardless of their religious beliefs. His main goal was to make them feel loved and cared for by God.

She indicated a plot of land past Damien’s elaborate tomb and shared that numerous individuals with leprosy had been laid to rest there without any identifying symbols. According to her, the priest made the decision to construct coffins and reinter some of the bodies that had been buried in shallow graves.

The group also visited the burial site of Saint Marianne, who was known as the “mother of outcasts.” Marianne Cope, originally from Germany, passed away in Kalaupapa in 1918 from natural causes and was officially recognized as a saint in 2012.

Marianne arrived at the settlement several months prior to Damien’s death, and her dedication to caring for Kaluapapa’s people continues to provide comfort in the face of tragedy, like this summer’s devastating fire on the nearby island of Maui.

Following the fire that devastated the majority of Sacred Hearts School, Principal Tonata Lolesio went back to the ruins of the Lahaina location. She scoured the area for a 12-inch metal sculpture of Marianne.

The nun’s words were a powerful reminder at the school: “Anything is possible. There are paths that lead to everything.”

Lolesio was unsuccessful in locating the Marianne statue, but the words of the saint guide her in running the school and providing education to students at a makeshift, temporary location.

She stated, “This is the correct reaction to a disaster. We must simply put our faith and confidence in God, knowing that He will provide for us just as He did for her.”

Kalaupapa serves as the ultimate resting spot for numerous individuals, including the great-grandfather of Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva. Due to the persistent stigma surrounding the misunderstood illness, Silva, like others, did not discover this aspect of his family’s past until adulthood. During pre-pandemic pilgrimages, he would make note of his great-grandfather’s gray headstone, as well as the graves of Damien and Marianne, during tours of the settlement.

Silva, whose diocese encompasses the peninsula, describes the tale of Kalaupapa as one of seclusion and anxiety. However, he believes that there is more to the story. Despite the challenges, the people there showed remarkable strength and resilience in striving to improve their circumstances. This, according to Silva, is also a significant aspect of the story of Kalaupapa.

A treatment for Hansen’s disease was discovered during the middle of the 20th century. Despite the lifting of the exile in 1969, a few former patients opted to stay at Kalaupapa due to its stunning surroundings. Sister Wajda described it as “almost sacrilegious” to attempt to describe its beauty.

At night, Kalaupapa becomes even quieter, except for the sound of waves crashing against the shore. The summer air is illuminated by the glowing eyes of axis deer, a non-native species, as they move through the settlement’s empty houses.

Meli Watanuki’s pickup truck is parked in front of St. Francis Church in the early mornings.

In 1969, she made the decision to relocate to the settlement after her husband left her and took their son with him due to her diagnosis of leprosy. Currently at 88 years old, she attends the daily 6 a.m. Mass regularly, along with Catholic sisters and sometimes employees from the health department.

Watanuki, speaking to journalists from The Associated Press whom she had invited to her home after attending Mass, shared that Catholicism held great significance for her family in her home country of American Samoa. She also mentioned that she only learned about Damien and Marianne after relocating to Kalaupapa, while a Hawaiian monk seal rested nearby during low tide.

She tearfully expressed her love for them, saying, “They support me and give me strength.”

According to her, she finds pleasure in visitors and pilgrims who come to the church. She also emphasized the importance of respecting the sacredness of the place.

Bishop Silva and other leaders within the church are enthusiastic about increasing the number of individuals who participate in the Kalaupapa pilgrimage. Bishop Silva refers to the pilgrimage as a way to pray through action. Once the limitations on travel have been lifted, the diocese will be able to continue organizing trips in collaboration with tour companies managed by residents of Kalaupapa. This has been one of the limited opportunities for the public to visit the peninsula in the past.

He mentioned that he has a full roster of individuals who expressed interest in attending. The sense of holiness at the location is truly palpable when one is present.

According to Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, a member of the Maui County Council from Molokai, there is concern among residents about tourism in Kalaupapa, a sacred place for Native Hawaiians, including herself.

Many Molokai residents are pleased that the efforts and sacrifices of Father Damien and Mother Marianne are being acknowledged, according to a statement. However, it is important for individuals to also show respect for the site’s history of immense sorrow and tragedy.

She is concerned about the future of the location once all the ex-patients are no longer living there.

The largest residence in Kalaupapa, known as the sisters’ house, is adorned with photographs of the sisters who dedicated their time to the settlement after Marianne. Lau and Wajda may be the final ones to do so.

“Sister Alicia and I have made a commitment to remain until the last patient departs or passes away,” stated Wajda. “We do not possess any possessions, such as land or property.”

The home’s possessions have been gradually distributed.

Once all patients have been discharged, the state health department will also depart.

“We both have a strong connection to the patients, the land, and the saints who have been here, both recognized and unrecognized,” Wajda stated. “I believe that the national park has the potential to share this story from a unique viewpoint.”


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