Molokai Part I – Inside Kalaupapa
A few weeks ago, Nicole Bonning, Senior Account Executive and all-around glue on our Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau account, was invited to visit the historic town of Kalaupapa, Molokai, by her friend Kim, a biotech with the National Park Service.
“They are such happy souls, living life to the fullest,” recalls Nicole as she describes meeting the few remaining Hansen Disease patients who live in the town of Kalaupapa, now a part of the Kalaupapa National Historic Park on the island of Molokai. Staying with her friend Kim, Nicole was able to spend a few days as a resident in a community that remains closed off by choice—and is therefore seldom seen by outsiders.
In the 1866, leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease) was a much-feared and misunderstood disease in Hawaii and resulted in the government-sanctioned medical quarantine of patients to two isolation settlements on Molokai, first at Kalawao and later to Kalaupapa. Surrounded by steep cliffs and rough waters, the “leper colony” as it was called at the time, was “a prison fortified by nature” where patients remained in forced isolation until 1969.
Today, the few patients and their descendants who choose to remain, live in a protected haven, sheltered from the outside world. “It’s like traveling back in time to what you’d imagine old Hawaii would be like,” says Nicole. “There are about 100 people living there—patients, caregivers and rangers—and when we went to the beach, no one would be there. It would be just the two of us and a couple of monk seals.”
Viewed through the eyes of history, the story of Kalaupapa is one of tragedy, with family members and loved ones torn apart with little communication and no chance of being reunited. But within this story of pain, there is also a legacy of uncompromising love. Belgian missionary-priest Father Damien (canonized in 2009) devoted his life to the patients of Kalaupapa. Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks became painted houses, farms and schools were established and basic medical care was provided. Father Damien remained in Kalaupapa by his request and the request of the patients until he succumbed to the disease at the age of 49.
“I was fortunate to have been there during Father Damien’s Feast Day,” explains Nicole. “Everyone went to the church where the message was about living for today, then we walked to a pavilion for an incredible feast that had been flown in from Oahu… Kim had been inviting me to go there for years. If I had known it would be such a life-changing experience, I wouldn’t have waited so long.”
Kalaupapa National Historical Park was established by the National Park Service with the goal of preserving the cultural and physical settings of the two leper colonies on the island of Molokai. It is partially accessible to tourists only by mule ride.
Stay tuned for Molokai-Part II next week, featuring photos from mvnp ACD Jacqueline Davey, who at the time of this writing is covering a photo shoot on this very island.