A tale of two towns

It had been raining all morning but the rain did not dampen our enthusiasm at Kalaupapa’s Terminal One where we awaited the touchdown of three planes carrying some 27 pilgrims. They would join us for our annual celebration of St. Damien’s feast. One of these pilgrims would be the main celebrant and homilist for the Mass, my classmate Father Bill Petrie, pastor of St. Damien Parish on Topside Molokai.

The minutes rolled by and then an hour but the clouds over the Pali left us locked in and our pilgrims locked out. So Sister Alicia besought St. Marianne to clear the way for the planes to come in from Topside and I called on St. Damien to do likewise — with no visible result. Perhaps Mother Marianne was busy helping girls to make lovely dresses and Father Damien was occupied breaking up illegal moonshine stills with his big stick! Another hour passed and then we received a message that the planes would not be landing here but would return to Honolulu.

Undaunted, we returned to Kalaupapa town and celebrated Mass at St. Francis Church. The choir members from St. John Vianney in Kailua provided uplifting music and I attempted to fill in for my venerable classmate from Topside. Our original plan had been to celebrate Mass at St. Philomena, the church twice rebuilt and enlarged in 1876 and 1889 by Father Damien. St. Philomena stands 2.6 miles from Kalaupapa in the township of Kalawao, the site of the original Hansen’s disease settlement. 

Because of the inclement weather, “Bishop” Meli and I had decided to have Mass in Kalaupapa instead. Kalawao is on the eastern side of the Makanalua peninsula. It is the windward and the rainy side and the settlement here was in the shadow of the great Pali. The first Hansen’s disease patients were sent here in 1886 to fend for themselves but many were too sick to do so. Then on May 10, 1873 along came Father Damien and the patients had their champion who worked tirelessly to better their lives and their conditions for the next 16 years until he himself succumbed to the ravages of leprosy.

It was in 1932 that the settlement for Hansen’s disease patients moved westward to the township of Kalaupapa where the patients could at least enjoy more pleasant weather and longer days of sunshine. Here at Bishop Home, Mother Marianne and her Franciscan Sisters had been caring for the girls and the women of the settlement since their arrival in 1888. Here in Kalaupapa in 1908 our present church, St. Francis of Assisi, was dedicated. Next to it stands Damien Hall, believed to be in its original form, Father Damien’s Kalaupapa church, Our Lady Health Of The Sick. And now you know the rest of the story.

Anchor columnist Father Killilea is pastor of St. Francis Parish in Kalaupapa, Hawaii.

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