Journeying to Kalaupapa — Following Saint Damien’s Footsteps

Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai is a truly unique spot on the Earth in terms of its stunning geography and natural beauty. Historically, this place has an amazing story to tell as well. During the time of the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1866, King Kamehameha V authorized the establishment of a settlement of leprosy patients at Kalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula. Saint Damien arrived in 1873 to care for the patients before contracting and succumbing to Hansen’s Disease himself in 1889.
With this background information in mind, my day began with a flight on a private chartered plane departing from Honolulu. The aircraft had wide windows on both sides of the plane, offering a panoramic view of the Hawaiian Islands on the way to Molokai. The sights of Oahu’s leeward coast stretched underneath, and the islands of Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and the Big Island were all visible ahead. My final destination of course was Molokai; after stopping in Kapalua on Maui to pick up some more guests we took off toward Molokai’s northern coast.
On our approach to Kalaupapa, even at an altitude of 1500 feet the tallest sea cliffs in the world stood high above me. The sheer rock face to the left of the aircraft gave way to valleys cut into the ancient volcano and in the distance was Kalaupapa. Upon exiting the plane, I had ample opportunity to snap photos of the Molokai Lighthouse, all while waves crashed into the coastline surrounding the airstrip. The Saint Damien tour bus pulled up to the airport and the ground tour began. On the road to the Kalaupapa settlement, the guide pointed out a beach where endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals like to rest; we were lucky enough to see a couple!
The tour itself includes a number of stops, starting with St. Francis Church, a Catholic church built in 1908 that has beautiful gothic-style stained glass windows. Continuing with the drive around the small town our guide pointed out various important buildings, including guest residences and the recently-constructed health clinic; the old one burned down almost two decades ago and some of its remnants still stand. Across the street from the ruined hospital is the monument to Mother Marianne. She is not as well-known as Saint Damien, but she worked just as selflessly for the patients of Kalaupapa and she carried on Damien’s work after he had passed. The last stop here is at the local bookstore, which gave everyone a chance to buy some souvenirs and books about Kalaupapa and Saint Damien to take home.
The tour then shifted, taking us to the other side of the peninsula to the old settlement location at Kalawao. On the way the guide made sure to dispel some misconceptions regarding Hansen’s Disease, and also enlightened us as to the possible future of Kalaupapa once the remaining patients pass away. One stop on the road included the remains of an ancient Hawaiian heiau, an important place of worship, before we finally arrived at St. Philomena Church. Saint Damien himself erected a portion of this church, and this is where he was initially buried following his death; no doubt devout Catholics may take the opportunity to pay their respects at his grave marker in the cemetery. The final stop for lunch offered everyone on tour some time to think about what they had seen and experienced that day, all in the very location where Hansen’s Disease patients over a century ago came ashore after being dumped into the rough waters.

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