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As our Tour Group approached the wedge-shaped airstrip on the northwestern edge of Kalaupapa Peninsula, it was difficult for us to wrap our minds around how such a stunning setting could have such a harsh history.
Surrounded mostly by the Pacific Ocean and isolated from the rest of Molokai by 1,600-foot cliffs, the peninsula is one of the most remote sites in the Hawaiian islands. Native Hawaiians dwelled here for centuries until they were displaced in 1865, when the Kingdom of Hawaii made the agonizing decision to exile victims of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) to Kalaupapa.
During seven grueling years before the arrival of Father Damien de Veuster, a Belgian priest, the quarantined colony fought to survive in horrific conditions. Early outcasts were forced overboard into pounding surf, with many drowning before they reached shore. Their settlement was void of potable water and shelters, leading them to live in rock enclosures, caves and rudimentary shacks built of sticks and dried leaves.
When Father Damien arrived in 1873, he made the ultimate gesture of charity by ministering to the settlement until leprosy claimed his life 16 years later. Canonized in October 2009, he is now also referred to as Saint Damien.
Our group was aware of this chronicle before we landed in our four-passenger propeller plane arranged by Clare Mawae of Molokai Outdoor Activities, who operated the ground portion of our Kalaupapa National Historical Park trek for Damien Tours.
We joined others who have ventured down from the other side of the island on Molokai Mule Rides’ sure-footed mammals. Those brave explorers have the option of hiking back up the trail or flying out on pre-arranged charters.
Once a community in isolation, Kalaupapa now serves as a place for education. Tapped as a National Historical Park in 1980, today, it is dedicated to preserving the memories and lessons of its poignant past.
On the leeward side of the peninsula, the Kalaupapa settlement remains home to seven full-time and 10 part-time patients who still require some medical attention. Among the other residents are employees of the Hawaii State Department of Health as well as a National Park Service research team.
Our ground transportation — a vintage yellow school bus — was fitting for the no-frills location. When the vehicle approaches each day, patients scurry off elsewhere. Preferring not to be “on display,” they live out their days in peace and privacy. Mawae explained that patients are no longer contagious thanks to sulfone drugs introduced in the 1940s.
We drove along dusty roads, stopping at the docks where supplies arrive each July. We also passed Saint Francis Church (its walls filled with Father Damien’s images), a visitors’ center selling books about the settlement and monuments to Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, who worked alongside the priest and cared for the residents of Kalaupapa after his death.
According to Mawae, the first group of Hansen’s disease patients arrived at Kalawao on the eastern side of the peninsula in early 1866. We headed in that direction to view the churches of Siloama and Saint Philomena.
Father Damien was laid to rest in a grave site adjacent to Saint Philomena. While his remains were relocated to Belgium in 1936, his hand was recently returned to Molokai and reinterred at Kalaupapa as a relic of his martyrdom.
In a covered pavilion nearby, we broke for our brown-bag lunch, awed by the dramatic view along the Kiwalao coast toward the dome-shaped Okala Rock jutting up from the surf.
“Over the years, Father Damien did nothing to separate himself from his people,” said Mawae. “He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl shared with other patients. He shared his pipe. And he didn’t always wash his hands after bandaging patients.”
As we fly out toward those rampart sea cliffs at the end of the day, I realized that the true message of this rich experience is that Father Damien never feared losing his life. He simply wanted to give it to aid those who were losing theirs.
Molokai Outdoor Activities877-553-4477www.molokai-outdoors.com
Tours are limited to visitors who are 16 years old and older. Clients who fly in or ride a mule to Kalaupapa receive a sack lunch with a beverage. Commission: 10-15 percent.