Tales of tragedy, compassion at Kalaupapa

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A view of the bay near the original Kalawao settlement where the Hawaiian government marooned people with leprosy in the 19th century.
A view of the bay near the original Kalawao settlement where the Hawaiian government marooned people with leprosy in the 19th century. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan
"Trust the mule." I kept repeating this sound advice to myself as my sturdy ride, Pololu, plodded down the 3-mile trail to Kalaupapa, the National Historical Park that is also a cultural site and home to a handful of the last people who were banished to the peninsula because of leprosy starting in 1866.


There are three ways to get to Kalaupapa, a picturesque spit of land that sits at the base of the tallest sea cliffs in the world on Molokai's northern coast, and all visitors must reserve with Damien Tours. There is a small airport on the peninsula with multiple daily flights to Oahu and Molokai's main airport. However, the most common way in is to take the steep trail that descends 1,664 feet to sea level via 26 switchbacks. Visitors can hike the trail or save their knees with a guided mule ride.

Those who choose the trail are rewarded with postcard-perfect views of cliffs, Kalaupapa and the Pacific crashing onto the shore. Packs of black mountain goats took breaks from grazing to watch our mule caravan go by. Before our group of journalists, hosted by the Molokai Visitors Bureau, went on our ride, a resident warned us that the mules would often seem to be headed for a tumble over the edge but added that these animals complete the trek several times a week and are sure-footed wonders. The mules even have their own order that they like to go in, and it is of little use to resist them. Sure enough, as I tried to take in the sweeping vistas while staying balanced on Pololu, he would precariously dip his head over the edge just before turning down the next switchback.

Taking the trail down to Kalaupapa drives home the isolation of the original colony, where the Hawaiian government marooned people with leprosy, or Hansen's disease, for more than 70 years. The peninsula at the foot of the equally stunning and imposing cliffs is cut off from the rest of Molokai.

A visitor takes in the view of Kalaupapa below as she makes her way down the steep trail on a mule.
A visitor takes in the view of Kalaupapa below as she makes her way down the steep trail on a mule. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan

In 1865 leprosy was spreading through Hawaii, and, though 95% of the population has a natural immunity, the debilitating effects of the bacterial infection were causing a panic. Faced with a growing epidemic, King Kamehameha V made the decision to start sending people suffering from leprosy to Kalaupapa on Jan. 6, 1866. Many people resisted, going into hiding, and others came to Kalaupapa with the help of family who were not suffering from the disease. At first conditions in the colony, which had no infrastructure, were very poor, and the plight of the sick, marooned people attracted the attention of various religious communities. Roman Catholic priests, Mormon leaders and others visited the colony to offer aid.

In 1873, a 33-year-old Belgian, Rev. Joseph DeVeuster, arrived at the colony to help. Known as Father Damien, he devoted his life to those sent to Kalaupapa, establishing facilities for treatment as well as worship and education. With the help of the afflicted, he built houses, devised a water system and planted trees. He organized the basics of community, including schools, choirs, bands and burials. He also badgered the government and others to send more resources.

More volunteers followed, raising the standard of living in the colony. In 1940, a cure for leprosy was developed, and forced isolation at Kalaupapa ended in 1949. Approximately 8,000 people were banished to Kalaupapa before the forced isolation ended. Damien, who was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2009, contracted the infection himself and died in 1889.

We arrived at the colony and dismounted our mules to meet our Kalaupapa tour guide Norman Soares, who picked up the group in a van. Current residents are free to leave but have chosen to remain. There are 14 residents of Kalaupapa from the forced isolation period who are still alive, the oldest now 93 years old; nine still live in the colony, and five are receiving medical care on Oahu, according to Soares. The town has about 100 residents, with the remainder made up of national park workers, airport employees, Department of Health staff and other workers.

One of the first stops was the gravesite of Sister Marianne Cope, herself canonized by the Catholic Church in 2012. Damien, much to the church's chagrin, recruited other Catholics to come to Kalaupapa and help with his mission. Cope and six other sisters of St. Francis came from Syracuse, N.Y., to answer Damien's call.

"I am hungry for the work, and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen ones, whose privilege it will be to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor Islanders," Cope wrote in response to Damien.

"I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned 'lepers.'"

Cope arrived on the island just five months before Damien's death and became an instrumental leader and organizational force in the colony. The sisters ran the Bishop Home for girls and also managed the colony's home for boys until 1895. Cope spent 35 years caring for Hansen's disease patients in Hawaii and died in 1918.

Next our tour made a stop at the bookstore, a great resource for all things relating to Kalaupapa and Molokai. There are commemorative posters from the canonizations of Cope and Damien, books set in Molokai and Kalaupapa, maps, photos, postcards and memorabilia.

For lunch our tour group headed to the west side of the peninsula and the original settlement where those afflicted with Hansen's disease first landed, Kalawao.

In a picnic area we gazed down on a turquoise bay with foliage-covered boulders shooting out of the calm water. This is where, Soares said, the boats would come to drop off the afflicted. Sometimes they would drop them at a small beach on the bay where they could make their way up to the settlement. But if the person put up a fight, the captain might have them thrown overboard, forcing them to fight for survival before ever making it to the peninsula.

The gravesite of Joseph Dutton, who helped care for the residents of Kalaupapa.
The gravesite of Joseph Dutton, who helped care for the residents of Kalaupapa. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan

The first place of worship in the colony, St. Philomena Church, sits on this side of the peninsula and contains a relic of Damien (his body was exhumed and buried in Belgium, but one of his hands is still buried here) as well as the gravesite of Joseph Dutton, a volunteer who dedicated his life to continuing Damien's work after he had been scarred by the horrors he witnessed while fighting in the Civil War.

The tour concluded with stops at the medical clinic, gas station and some run-of-the-mill facilities that make up the still-functioning community.

As we mounted our mules for the climb back up the trail, there was much more to absorb than just the scenery. The protection of Kalaupapa as a national historical park and the tour offer a moving opportunity to learn how a place of isolation and misery was turned into a community with dignity and hope.

The Kalaupapa Mule Tour ($209 per person) includes national park entry permits, tour, light picnic lunch and a souvenir completion certificate. See https://muleride.com.

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