The Benton Courier

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

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher

KALAUPAPA, Hawaii — Kalaupapa beckoned to Kyong Son Toyofuku. She had long prayed to visit the hard-to-reach Hawaiian peninsula, trapped by its deep-green, sheer sea cliffs and rugged, black rock shores that glisten under the Pacific’s pristine waters.

As a daily Mass-going Catholic devoted to Saint Damien of Molokai, she wanted to walk where he walked, pray where he prayed, and witness for herself the place — both stunning and haunting — where the late priest spent a pivotal part of his life caring for banished people sick with leprosy.

The pilgrimage to Kalaupapa, defined by its natural isolation in northern Molokai, is logistically challenging and restricted under normal circumstances. It is even more so today because of lingering COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that canceled all pilgrimages and tours of the national historical park to protect the peninsula’s eight remaining former patients. Park and state health department officials are considering when to resume organized pilgrimages and tours.

For Toyofuku, a series of permissions came together at the right moment this summer. At the invitation of Kalaupapa’s priest, she retraced Father Damien’s footsteps in a place where for more than a century nearly no one wanted to go — and many would never leave.

Her husband, Lance Toyofuku, called all the difficulty God’s plan.

“Maybe the people who really want to get there will be able to go there,” he said. “You don’t want a million people going there every year.”

Kalaupapa, now a refuge for those who still call the peninsula home, was once the government’s answer to a deadly leprosy outbreak in the 1800s that persisted into the next century.

Missionaries, like Father Damien and Mother Marianne — who also became a Catholic saint following her service on the island — moved to Kalaupapa to care for the new residents’ physical and spiritual needs. The patients were immersed in suffering from the disease and the separation, said Alicia Damien Lau, one of two Catholic sisters currently living and serving on the peninsula, but the sick still found ways to thrive.

“The patients were all saints in a sense,” she said.

More than 8,000 people, mostly Native Hawaiians, perished at Kalaupapa, including Damien, who eventually contracted leprosy, later called Hansen’s disease. The Belgian priest, born Joseph De Veuster, is credited with drastically improving living conditions in the settlement.

“When you look at the surrounding areas, you could just feel the peace and spirit working in you,” said Lance Toyofuku, who lives in Hawaii’s capital city. “It’s not like being in Honolulu with all the cars and all the people.”

At the end of a gravel road, Damien’s grave site stands next to the church the priest expanded in 1876.

The National Park Service, which cares for Kalaupapa’s cultural and historic resources, restored the church ahead of Damien’s 2009 canonization. His body was moved to Belgium in 1936. His right hand was reburied in 1995 at the site.

The group also prayed at the grave of Saint Marianne. Marianne Cope, who was born in Germany, died at Kalaupapa in 1918 of natural causes and was canonized in 2012.

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.

Soon after the blaze destroyed most of Sacred Hearts School, Principal Tonata Lolesio returned to the ashes of the Lahaina campus. She searched for a 12-inch metal statue of Marianne.

A quote from the nun served as a prominent message at the school: “Nothing

is impossible. There are ways which lead to everything.”

Lolesio never found the Marianne statue, but the saint’s words help her lead the school as it continues to educate students at a temporary site.

Kalaupapa is the final resting place for so many, including Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva’s great-grandfather. Because of the disease’s stigma, Silva, like many others, didn’t learn of this piece of family history until he became an adult. When he joined pre-pandemic pilgrimages, he would point out his great-grandfather’s headstone along with Damien’s and Marianne’s graves during the settlement tours.

“The story of Kalaupapa is the story of isolation and fear,” said Silva, whose diocese includes the peninsula. But that’s not the full narrative, he said, “People were resilient and tried to make the best of it.”





Alberta Newspaper Group