Pilgrims Aspire to Visit Isolated Peninsula Where Catholic Saints Ministered to Hawaii’s Leprosy Patients

by Sophia Chen
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Kalaupapa, a remote Hawaiian peninsula, has long held a magnetic pull on Kyong Son Toyofuku’s heart. Her fervent desire to set foot on this challenging-to-reach location, characterized by its imposing sea cliffs and stark black rock shores embraced by the pristine Pacific waters, stemmed from her deep devotion as a daily Mass-going Catholic to Saint Damien of Molokai. Her aspiration was to tread the same paths that he walked, to pray where he prayed, and to witness the place that held both breathtaking beauty and haunting history, where the late priest dedicated a significant part of his life to caring for ostracized individuals afflicted by leprosy.

The journey to Kalaupapa, located in the secluded northern Molokai, has always presented logistical complexities, further exacerbated today by ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that have halted all pilgrimages and tours to protect the remaining eight former patients who call this national historical park home. Nevertheless, the park and state health department authorities are gradually relaxing these restrictions and contemplating when organized pilgrimages and tours can resume.

For Toyofuku, a series of providential permissions converged during this past summer, finally realizing her dream. An invitation from Kalaupapa’s priest allowed her to retrace Father Damien’s footsteps in a place that, for over a century, few dared to venture — a place where many would spend their final days.

Thinking about Damien’s unwavering dedication to the sick brings tears to Toyofuku’s eyes. She attests, “Every morning I pray to him.”

Her husband, Lance Toyofuku, viewed the challenges as part of a divine plan. He remarked, “Perhaps only those truly determined will be able to make the journey. We wouldn’t want a million people going there every year.”

Kalaupapa, once a government response to a devastating leprosy outbreak in the 1800s that persisted into the next century, was a policy-driven confinement for the afflicted, who were uprooted from their familiar lives and deposited in this primitive settlement by successive boats. Missionaries like Father Damien and Mother Marianne, who also became a Catholic saint for her service on the island, arrived at Kalaupapa to attend to both the physical and spiritual needs of the newcomers. The patients grappled with the agony of the disease and the isolation, yet they found moments of happiness and ways to flourish.

More than 8,000 people, predominantly Native Hawaiians, lost their lives at Kalaupapa, including Damien, who eventually contracted leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. Born Joseph De Veuster, the Belgian priest is credited with significantly improving the living conditions within the settlement. Over a century after his passing in 1889, Damien’s devotion to the ailing continues to inspire people worldwide, just as the dedication of Saint Marianne does.

The Reverend Patrick Killilea, Kalaupapa’s priest and de facto tour guide, greeted the Toyofukus upon their recent arrival. They embarked on a journey in his Toyota minivan, aptly labeled “Fr. Pat’s Paddy Wagon,” heading to one of their first destinations: Damien’s original grave.

Lance Toyofuku, residing in Hawaii’s capital city, shared his impression, saying, “When you look at the surrounding areas, you could just feel the peace and spirit working in you. It’s not like being in Honolulu with all the cars and all the people. It’s a place where you can get closer to God because you don’t have all those distractions.”

At the end of a gravel road stands Damien’s grave, adjacent to St. Philomena, the church he expanded in 1876. The National Park Service, responsible for preserving Kalaupapa’s cultural and historic heritage, meticulously restored the church in anticipation of Damien’s canonization in 2009. Although Damien’s remains were relocated to Belgium in 1936, only a relic remains, as the priest’s right hand was reinterred at the site in 1995.

Damien’s love for the people of Kalaupapa knew no bounds, according to Barbara Jean Wajda of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, who reside on the peninsula. She and Sister Alicia Damien Lau assisted the Toyofukus in securing a flight to the peninsula. Wajda explained, “He would eat with them. He would treat their wounds. And it didn’t really matter if they were Catholic or not. But he wanted them to feel that they were loved by God and cared for.”

Wajda pointed to a field beyond Damien’s ornate grave, recounting how many leprosy patients were buried without markers. The priest took it upon himself to construct coffins and reinter some of those found in shallow graves.

The group also paid their respects at the grave of Saint Marianne, known as the “mother of outcasts.” Marianne Cope, born in Germany, passed away at Kalaupapa in 1918 due to natural causes and was canonized in 2012.

Kalaupapa’s sacredness is palpable, especially when one stands amidst its breathtaking surroundings. Once travel restrictions are lifted, the diocese plans to resume pilgrimages in partnership with tour companies owned by Kalaupapa residents, providing an opportunity for more individuals to experience the spiritual significance of this place firsthand.

Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, the Molokai member of the Maui County Council, acknowledges the importance of recognizing the work and sacrifices of Father Damien and Mother Marianne, but also emphasizes the need for respectful tourism that honors the deep sorrow and tragedy associated with Kalaupapa. The fate of the peninsula after the last former patient passes away remains uncertain.

For now, Kalaupapa’s serene nights are punctuated by the sound of crashing ocean waves. In the early mornings, residents like Meli Watanuki gather for the daily 6 a.m. Mass, a cherished ritual that offers solace and strength.

Visitors like the Toyofukus and others who embark on this pilgrimage to Kalaupapa not only pay homage to the Catholic saints but also become witnesses to the enduring spirit of those who found hope and resilience in the face of unimaginable adversity.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Pilgrimage

What is Kalaupapa?

Kalaupapa is an isolated Hawaiian peninsula with a rich history. It served as a government response to a leprosy outbreak in the 1800s, forcing afflicted individuals to live in this remote settlement.

Who were Father Damien and Saint Marianne?

Father Damien and Saint Marianne were Catholic missionaries who dedicated their lives to caring for the leprosy patients at Kalaupapa. They are now recognized as saints for their selfless service.

How challenging is it to visit Kalaupapa?

Visiting Kalaupapa is logistically challenging due to its isolation, steep cliffs, and strict rules, including age restrictions. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated visits.

Why is Kalaupapa a place of pilgrimage?

Kalaupapa is considered sacred due to the dedication of Father Damien and Saint Marianne. Pilgrims seek to walk in their footsteps, pay homage, and experience the spiritual significance of the place.

What is the significance of Kalaupapa’s history?

Kalaupapa’s history reflects the resilience of individuals who faced isolation and adversity. It’s a testament to human strength and the compassionate care provided by Father Damien and Saint Marianne.

What are the future plans for pilgrimages to Kalaupapa?

Once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the diocese plans to resume pilgrimages in collaboration with local tour companies, allowing more people to visit this sacred site.

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