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The story of Kalaupapa, Molokai is one of heartbreak as well as heroes. In the late 1800s, Hansen's disease was rampant in Hawaii. A lack of understanding of the disease and other factors led to the forced exile of patients to the secluded peninsula of Kalaupapa. Over the next century, many Congregational ministers, Catholic priests, Mormon elders, as well as family and friends of patients went voluntarily to Molokai to help, and through their efforts, the isolated community slowly transformed from a place to die into a place of healing. Of the many selfless caregivers, Saint Damien and Saint Marianne Cope are remembered as beloved champions of the patients.
Saint Damien was a selfless man who spent 16 years ministering to those who suffered from Hansen’s disease at what is now Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Born Joseph de Veuster in 1840 in Belgium, Joseph traveled to Oahu in 1864 on missionary work. There, he took the name Damien after being ordained at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, which still stands in Honolulu today, the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in continuous use in the United States.
Following eight years of service on Hawaii Island, Saint Damien became aware that priests were needed on Molokai, to help those suffering from Hansen’s disease, a chronic ailment that can affect the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. The settlement of Kalaupapa, surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean and cut off from the rest of Molokai by sea cliffs, was where those suffering from the illness were forcibly isolated from 1866 to 1969. At the age of 33, Damien arrived at this secluded peninsula, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Along with administering the faith and tending to the sick, he coordinated funding and medical services from Oahu, helped patients construct houses and churches, and even assisted in creating a water system. His willingness to insist both his church and Hawaii’s government provide further resources helped raise global awareness of the disease and those suffering from it. Most importantly, he displayed tremendous kindness, easing the suffering and treating the afflicted with the utmost respect, leaving a legacy of selflessness and compassion that the people of Hawaii have never forgotten.
His close contact with those he was helping led to his contracting Hansen’s disease himself. In 1889, Saint Damien died from the disease he worked so long to treat. Nearly 90 years after his death, in 1977, he was proclaimed by Pope Paul VI to be venerable, the first step toward sainthood. In October of 2009, Father Damien was named a saint at a ceremony in Rome. In attendance will be proud ancestors of those he cared for while in Kalaupapa.
Kalaupapa National Historical Park, which was established in 1980, is open year round, but only accessible by tour. Once there, visitors can learn more about Saint Damien and his contributions. One of the park’s monuments is St. Philomena Roman Catholic Church, where Damien served and was originally buried. Back on Oahu, where he first landed in 1864, you can see Saint Damien’s iconic statue in front of the State Capitol in Downtown Honolulu. Another statue honoring him can be found at the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C., along with a statue of King Kamehameha I.