A Tour of Molokai's Kalaupapa Peninsula

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A Tour of Molokai's Kalaupapa Peninsula

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Feb 08, 2012

It’s a grey and blustery day on Kauai, as I sit to write this. Chilly winds out of the north keep me in jeans and a sweater all day. That’s rare. Today’s low is expected to be 56 degrees, and the high 76. It’s a good day to read. 

Travel is good for reading. I am finishing Gavan Daws book Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai, which I started before my weekend trip to the sliver of an island that sits across the channel off Oahu’s southeastern shores. I review my notes and photos from our tour of Kalaupapa, the pancake flat peninsula at the base of 2,000-foot sea cliffs along the north shore of Molokai. And I think about two men and a woman.

First, Norman, our tour guide, a tight mustache sneaking below his nose and matching white hair gamely attempting to cover his head. He commanded an old, yellow school bus and wore a white t-shirt that said, “When all else fails, read the instructions.” A photo of a glowing Bible stretched across his belly. I looked closer to determine what version of the Bible, thinking that might tell me something more about Norman, but the T-shirt didn’t specify. 

And the second man I am thinking about as Hawaii’s tropical sun parts the clouds is Father Damien, of course. I say, “of course,” because Father Damien is nearly synonymous with Kalaupapa peninsula, site of forced exile for more than eight thousand people suspected to be afflicted with what was then called leprosy, now called Hansen’s disease. Father Damien’s likeness is everywhere: On banners, t-shirts, statues, busts, behind glass on paintings, prints, and postcards. Father Damien arrived at Kalaupapa in 1873. He built beds and homes and a water line. Coffins and cemeteries and churches. He mixed and mingled and reached out and, even, took into his arms those suffering from the contagious disease that was, at the time, a life sentence, and in the end, Father Damien, too, contracted leprosy and died in 1889. One hundred and twenty years later, on Rosary Sunday, October 11, 2009, Father Damien was canonized, meaning he is now known as Saint Damien. But in Hawaii, he is still called Father Damien.

Our tour group consisted of mule riders and hikers who descended into Kalaupapa by way of the 3.2-mile pali, cliff, trail and a small group who flew in from Oahu. Norman fired up the yellow school bus and drove us along a dusty road into the settlement of Kalaupapa for a restroom and snack stop at Fuesaina Bar. “The owner of the store has asked us to share,” Norman said in his measured speech. “That they have bottled water, soda and film, but they do not serve alcoholic beverages before 4:00 p.m.” It wasn’t even noon yet. According to Gavan Daws’ book, there were days when drinking and partying and more were out of hand in the settlement.

Norman spoke as if we were all well aware of the Belgium-born Father Damien. Indeed, sainthood can bring celebrity. But Father Damien’s canonization wasn’t the first time the international press penned his story. Much to the sometimes frustration of his Catholic superiors at the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts in Honolulu and often to the teeth-gnashing of his Protestant contemporaries, Father Damien’s work at Kalaupapa received accolades in newspapers worldwide throughout his lifetime. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a letter in 1890 that was eventually published as a 64-page book in 1916 and titled Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Reverend Dr. Hyde of Honolulu. The good—if not head-strong--priest’s name continues to grace headlines and book titles to this day.

Northeast trades whipped upwards of 20 miles per hour and the faint silhouette of Oahu appeared on the distant, western horizon. “Trade winds keep it cool and comfortable here and blow the bugs right on over to Oahu,” Norman said. We stood under blue skies by the monument and one-time grave of Mother Marianne Cope, and I sensed that Norman’s respect for her outweighed that of Father Damien’s.

Mother Marianne was born in Germany in 1838. When she was two years of age, her family moved to Utica, New York and changed their name from Koob to Cope. In 1862, Mother Marianne joined the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, and in 1883 she moved to Hawaii specifically to care for the victims of Hansen’s disease. “I desire to accept this work in the name of the great Saint Francis,” she is quoted as saying. She arrived in Kalaupapa shortly before Father Damien’s death to run the Bishop Home for women and girls.

“Now, Mother Marianne herself was an amazing woman,” Norman said. “She was the administrative type of person, very disciplined and very organized. Unlike Father Damien. Father Damien, of course, was an amazing man himself. But Mother Marianne was also a gifted person. One area of her gifting was her ability to work with people. Mother Marianne was able to get resources that were needed here in Kalaupapa in six months times that Father Damien couldn’t get in six years time.”

Mother Marianne spent 30 years at Kalaupapa. At her request, she was buried on the grounds of the Bishop Home upon her death in 1918. In 2005, her remains were exhumed and moved to a shrine at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Saint Francis in Syracuse. So far, Mother Marianne has passed two steps of three on her way to beatification. A sign in the National Historic Park’s book store declares, “We have a saint! Blessed Marianne Cope. To be canonized in 2012.” 

That would make two saints created out of the place where so many were sent as cast-offs, unclean and untouchable. Hansen’s disease affects the nerves, skin, respiratory system and eyes. It can cause permanent disfigurement. A cure was eventually discovered in the 1940s, and some patients left. Others remained, citing Kalaupapa as their home. In 1976, Kalaupapa was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in 1980, it was re-designated as National Historical Park. There are 17 former Kalaupapa patients alive today. About half still live at Kalaupapa.

Norman hustled us about the peninsula, revving up the bus’ motor to drive around a block, only to turn off the ignition in order to share something about the cliff trail, visible from the town of Kalaupapa, something about a closed store decorated with license plates from around the world, something about the numerous churches dotting the 12-square miles of land, something about the one-time hospital and infirmary, the National Park Service building, the best places to re-fill water bottles.

We disembarked to explore the visitor center, where everyday items like spoons that had to be modified for patients were on display. We walked through St. Francis Church and St. Philomena’s. We ate a measly sandwich at Kalawao, site of the first settlement and snapped pictures of Molokai’s famous sea cliffs, supposedly some of the tallest in the world.

We learned about Father Damien and Mother Marianne, but, in recollecting the day’s tour, I realize now that we heard very little about the actual people—the former patients, as Norman called them—who were exiled at Kalaupapa. What were their days like? How did they wind up in exile? How did they survive? I’d read the controversial book The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai when it published in 2006. I’d read The True Story of Kaluaikoolau: As Told by His Wife Piilani about one man’s efforts to evade the police tasked with arresting him and shipping him off to Kalaupapa. But Norman was mum on the actual people of Kalaupapa.

It dawns on me now that Norman left out personal details on purpose. 

When we first climbed aboard the bus and sat down, Norman said, “I need to tell you something.” He sat on his perch of a driver’s seat, the engine rumbling to a stop, and held up a knotty hand, one shaky finger pointing in the air. “Kalaupapa is a restricted area, so there are a few things to remember. One, some places are off limits. Two, stay together as a group. Three, I encourage you to ask questions. And, four, take pictures of anything. Except people.”

The privacy of the former patients of Kalawao is highly protected. And, yet, in 1966, a former patient named Richard Marks started Father Damien Tours, the only way for most people like me to step foot on Kalaupapa. It’s a push-pull conundrum. It seems many former patients want the world to know about Kalaupapa—and, hence, the tours. But they don’t want the world to know about them. I can understand. For too long, the stigma of leprosy was shame. People suffering from the disease hid from authorities. Yet, one woman, Olivia Robello Breitha, who was exiled at age 18, decided to share her story. And that’s why the next book on my nightstand waiting for me to read is

Olivia: My Life of Exile in Kalaupapa


[Note: This is the second part of a two-part series covering Kalaupapa. The first detailed the descent into Kalaupapa on muleback.]


Sabine | Feb 25, 2013 02:14 AM

thanks for the nice article, i recommend "Molokai´i" from Alan Brennert. It is a moving story about a young girl who came to Kalaupapa and had to stay their whole life there. After i read the book it was my wish to go to Kalaupapa. I made it in January, like you with a mule. It was amazing! Best regards, Sabine

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