‘Moon over Molokai’  makes brief return to Fairhaven

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

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FAIRHAVEN, Mass. — Sunday Masses at St. Mary’s Parish in Fairhaven got a dose of the “aloha spirit” this past week as its former pastor and current Anchor columnist, Father Patrick Killilea, SS.CC., celebrated the 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Masses before heading back to his parish in Kalaupapa, Hawaii.

“It was great coming back and participating in Mass,” said Father Killilea, adding the he felt the difference between celebrating Mass at St. Francis Parish in Hawaii versus celebrating in Fairhaven. “At the most, we have maybe 15 people in Mass on Sunday [at St. Francis] — six patients and a few workers who stay in the settlement. Here, everybody gets into it and sings. That’s nice to experience again.”

Father Killilea was already prepared for the change of pace in Hawaii during a three-month stay there in the summer of 2006. When he was permanently assigned to St. Francis Parish just over two years ago, he cited that 2006 stay as “good preparation for long-term on what” life would be like being pastor to the remaining patients still living on the island of Molokai in what is left of the leper colony that had been overseen by fellow Sacred Hearts priest, St. Damien.

Not only is Father Killilea walking in the footsteps of St. Damien, he is living the words of Pope Francis, who is encouraging Catholics to appreciate other faiths and who told visitors during a recent trip to Korea; “We must continue to walk together, walking with God and going forward together,” said the pope.

“One of the interesting things I’ve seen during Sunday service at St. Francis Parish is enjoying the Mass alongside non-Catholics,” said Father Killilea. “The Sunday Mass involves those who are not Catholic and some who are not Christian. They are some of our most faithful persons in the congregation; there is a National Park worker who is Congregational but attends our Mass quite regularly. We have another man who is Episcopalian and he’s a lector every Sunday, and very dependable. We have another man whose wife is Catholic and lives in Oahu; he’s a National Park worker and he’s Buddhist. When he’s in the settlement, he’s in church on Sunday for Mass.”

These non-Catholic National Park workers — “They call them kokua (helpers),” said Father Killilea — have accompanied patients to celebration the canonizations of SS. Damien and Marianne Copeland.

Father Killilea also gets a chance to talk about St. Damien to tour groups visiting Kalaupapa via specialized Damien tours, who visit six days a week; the tour groups either fly in, hike or take a mule ride down from the topside of the island.

Father Killilea welcomes them in, invites them to be seated in the church, introduces himself and as part of his introduction will joke; “I grew up in a western part of Ireland on a small farm, so like Damien I was the son of a farmer,  though I’ve been called other things.”

The settlement has been lived in for at least 900 years prior to the 1800s and St. Damien’s arrival, and as the leprosy patients were dumped on the island, the healthy inhabitants were transferred out. Father Killilea said he shares with visitors all that St. Damien did to take care of those suffering from the disease.

“The first part of the tour is the present settlement, which we call Kalaupapa, and then after they complete that, [the tour group] travels to the original settlement, Kalawao, which is two to three miles away to visit the church that Damien twice-enlarged, St. Philomena Church. That’s where Damien really spent years there,” said Father Killilea. “He had to be about everything to the patients — nurse, doctor, carpenter, stuff like that.”

Father Killilea also speaks about St. Marianne Copeland, a Franciscan nun who arrived shortly before Damien’s death and carried on his legacy in caring for the leprosy patients. He then fields questions from visitors, including the most common question: “Is Damien buried there?” said Father Killilea. “Of course he was; he was buried in 1889 next to his church (St. Philomena). His body was taken to Belgium in 1936, and then when he was declared Blessed in 1995, his right hand was returned and interred, with the grave sealed so that it cannot be taken up again.”

Father Killilea customarily travels to his homeland of Ireland on an annual basis, but decided not to go home last year because being newly-arrived in Hawaii, he was not only getting settled in, “the summer schedule would have made it awkward,” he said. “There were things already on the schedule that I had to be there for.”

This year, though, Father Killilea carved out more than three weeks to visit his family in Ireland; “It was wonderful,” he said of his long, overdue visit. “I felt that absence last year.”

Hailing from County Galway in the province of Connacht, about 35 miles from Galway Bay, Father Killilea stayed at his original family home where his brother still resides. Though his sister passed away seven years ago from cancer, he was still able to visit with his remaining three siblings, two of whom have children of their own.

“It was very low key,” said Father Killilea of his visiting his relatives and neighbors. “We had Masses with the family, at my brother and sister’s homes. At the local nursing home, my sister-in-law is on staff; I did their first of the month Mass there.”

The plan was to spend a month in Ireland, but thanks to a special wish by longtime St. Mary’s parishioner and friend, Charlie Murphy, Father Killilea stopped by his former parish in Fairhaven to grant the request.

“Father Pat is a part of our family and would share Christmas dinner with us each year,” said Murphy. “He has seen each of our children grow and baptized our son, CJ. He also renewed our wedding vows in a church that St. Damien had built on Molokai. Carrie [my wife] and I celebrated our 20th year with our family in Hawaii and spent some time with Father Pat.

“Father Pat is a member of our family and we have a long history. When he came back to St. Mary’s years ago, he had asked me to stay on parish council and to start the child ministry program at St. Mary’s. I did as he requested and the program took off, more than 10 years and going strong. Additionally, Father Pat was a part of our Human Rights Committee for MOLIFE, Inc. (www.molifeinc.com) and took the time and effort to ensure that the rights of people with disabilities were the highest priority. Father Pat would also meet with the folks from MOLIFE if they needed him for spiritual direction.”

When Murphy’s daughter Alyssa gave birth to her daughter Alanah, she could think of no one better-suited to baptize her daughter than Father Killilea.

“She has grown up Catholic and was very clear on her decision to keep her baby and respect life and personally asked Father Pat,” said Murphy. “Alyssa has always had a very special bond with Father Pat and he has always been a listening ear for her. Alyssa, along with our whole family, have been to Hawaii a few times to visit with Father Pat.” 

Seeing Father Killilea baptize his granddaughter was an amazing experience, said Murphy, an experience made even more special since Father Killilea hadn’t performed a Baptism since leaving for Hawaii.

“It was very special for all of us,” said Murphy.

Father Killilea said he was able to see many familiar faces during his short time in Fairhaven, and while he may be heading back to a small congregation that due to age has a hard time hearing him during Mass — “I don’t get anyone to laugh at my jokes,” said Father Killilea. “Either they don’t get it or they don’t hear, but they sing to the best of their ability” — he said he truly enjoyed being back in Fairhaven.

“It was lovely visiting here,” he said.

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts