A saint for Hawaii’s ‘quiet island’

 MOLOKAI, Hawaii — A colorful sign painted with purple, gold and red block letters greets visitors as they exit the airport here:



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That says it all about this small (260 square miles), agricultural island without even one stoplight, located only 15 miles across the channel from popular playground Maui, but a world away.

The least developed of Hawaii’s six major tourism islands, Molokai also is the most Hawaiian, with more native Hawaiians or part-Hawaiians among its 7,400 residents. Locals like to do things their way. They call it “Molokai Style,” and that means leading a simple lifestyle and staying out of the limelight.

But come October, spotlights from around the world will shine on Molokai when Pope Benedict XVI canonizes Blessed Damien, declaring him Hawaii’s first saint.

Ceremonies will begin Oct. 11 in Rome and continue through Nov. 6, during which time St. Damien’s venerated relic — a bone from his right heel — will be transported to various U.S. mainland cities and throughout Hawaii. After the pageantry, the relic will remain at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu, where Joseph de Veuster was ordained Father Damien in 1864.

But it is Molokai where the Belgian priest has special significance because of his undying devotion to patients with leprosy, who were abandoned in a deep valley on the island’s hauntingly beautiful northern peninsula, isolated at the bottom of 2,000- to 3,000-foot sheer cliffs, and surrounded by rugged lava coastline and swirling sea.

In 1866, hundreds of Hawaiians suspected of having leprosy were banished from their homes after King Kamehameha V ordered those with advanced cases to be exiled to the Kalaupapa peninsula in an attempt to stop the spread of the dreaded disease. Also known as Hansen’s disease, leprosy was thought to have been introduced by Chinese laborers brought to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations. Hawaiians were particularly susceptible because they had developed no immune system against it.

Eventually, thousands of patients were dumped here by ship, many jabbed with sticks and forced to jump overboard and swim to shore, left to survive as best they could; many did not. They were cast out by a civilization that didn’t understand or care — except one.

Father Damien, a 33-year-old Roman Catholic priest who had been doing missionary work in Hawaii, volunteered to help at the settlement, arriving in 1873, seven years after the first patients were cast off there. He died 16 years later at age 49, a victim himself of leprosy. He was buried on the Kalaupapa peninsula in the cemetery next to his beloved St. Philomena Church, but his body was exhumed in 1936 after the Belgium government requested it be returned.

When Pope John Paul II declared the priest “Blessed Damien” in 1995 (one step before sainthood in the Catholic religion), bones of his right hand were sent back to Hawaii and reburied in his original grave as a symbol of his hard work.

President Barack Obama, in March, signed legislation that created the Kalaupapa Monument, a permanent tribute to the estimated 8,000 leprosy patients who were forced to leave their families and exiled to the peninsula. The monument eventually will list the names of those sent to Kalaupapa, which has been a National Historical Park since 1980.

How does all the attention sit with the community?

“I’m going to say the locals are excited about this,” says Michael Drew, manager of Hotel Molokai, the island’s only full-service hotel whose 53 rooms are sold out for all the various Damien events. The hotel will show the canonization on three big-screen TVs at the hotel bar — the only liquor license on Molokai — as ceremonies are televised live in Rome. “The locals are very vocal about things, and I haven’t had any negative feedback,” Drew says. “They understand what Father Damien did here. They’re proud of the fact that he’s becoming a saint.”

Father Clyde Guerreiro of Blessed Damien Catholic Parish, which includes four churches “topside” — everything except the 4-square-mile Kalaupapa peninsula below the cliffs (which has its own parish) — also plans to set up a big-screen TV at St. Sophia, Molokai’s small, main Catholic church in Kaunakakai, the island’s hub town. “I would like to have a short prayer service and put up a couple of tents and have a party,” where people can kick back and enjoy the Oct. 11 canonization ceremony, Father Guerreiro says.

He plans a more solemn event on Oct. 30, when St. Damien’s relic arrives in Molokai. Father Guerreiro has invited 10 bishops to be on hand for a prayer vigil and welcome ceremony at St. Joseph’s, a church Father Damien built in 1876 on the east end of the island that serves as a shrine and is used now mostly for special occasions. A service will follow at St. Sophia, where the relic will remain throughout the night.

The next day a group of high school students and other young people, with the relic, will hike down the steep, 3-mile cliff-side trail that leads to Kalaupapa, which will have its own private ceremonies.

Father Guerreiro says he is proud that “two saints are arising from this small island,” referring also to Mother Marianne Cope, who arrived at Kalaupapa in 1888 and carried on Father Damien’s work for 30 years until her death at age 80. She has been declared “blessed” and will one day reach sainthood.

“It allows us to look at the history of this island and understand not only some of the tragedy this island has had to bear but the great hope and heroism of both of them,” he says. “I think it’s inspirational. In view of the economic system, we could use all the inspiration that’s available.”

Molokai has an unemployment rate of 14 percent, Father Guerreiro says, and one-third of the residents receive some kind of government financial assistance. Contributing to the unemployment was the March 2008 closing of Molokai Ranch, one of the island’s largest employers. About 200 workers became jobless after the company, for economic reasons, shut its west-end hotel operations, along with the island’s only movie theater and 18-hole golf course, a gas station and cattle-rearing business.

And tourism, Hawaii’s economic backbone, isn’t booming on Molokai, partly because it isn’t easy to get here. While there is a 149-passenger daily ferry from Maui, flights to the island are limited, as are places to stay. Budget and Dollar car rental companies left the island earlier this year, although Alamo stepped in.

Is Molokai seeking more tourists?

“We are seeking to get the right tourists, those that find our lifestyle to their liking,” says Julie Bicoy, director of the Molokai Visitors Association. “This is the quiet island, the island to relax and see the old Hawaii. We have a simple lifestyle. You can stop in town and still talk to people. Our community is family oriented. It’s a different lifestyle from what most big cities are accustomed to. We are seeking those that want to be part of the community.”

Hotel manager Drew says the locals aren’t against tourists. “They just want to keep Molokai Molokai. I don’t think they mind so much that people come, but don’t try to change it. If you try to change it, forget it.”

He believes more tourists will visit Molokai in the aftermath of Father Damien’s sainthood. “This will somewhat put Molokai on the map,” he says. “Once Father Damien becomes a saint, he’s a saint forever. People will want to come and see the place that Father Damien helped build. You’re going to have that Catholic traveler on a regular basis.”

Father Damien has been drawing visitors of varying faiths for more than three decades, ever since an enterprising couple who owned a Molokai car-rental agency came up with Tropical Rent-a-Mule in 1973 as a way to transport tourists down a zig-zag trail to the peninsula, which has no roads connecting it to the rest of Molokai.

Buzzy Sproat, one of the original Tropical mule trainers, now owns the company, called Molokai Mule Ride, which takes tourists on the hour-and-a-half descent. He has a stable of 23 mules that make the tricky trek down — and back up — a 3-mile-long trail with 26 switchbacks.

Visitors may opt to hike the trail or take a 10-minute flight on a nine-passenger single-engine prop jet from “topside” to the Kalaupapa airport, where the terminal is an open-air wooden structure with a roof, restrooms and seating area. And, talk about Molokai style: The pilot checks in passengers, and no one has to go through security lines.

All outsiders must be accompanied by a guide in Kalaupapa. Mule-riders, hikers and fliers all hook up with Damien Tours, which conducts a three-hour excursion via an old school bus, and includes several stops at historic sites and a picnic lunch at a peaceful spot overlooking dramatic sea cliffs and ocean rock formations.

Richard Marks, a one-time patient who died in December at age 79, started Damien Tours in 1966 to educate the outside world about the settlement and leprosy, which affects the nerves, skin and eyes, and can leave disfiguring scars. Marks was the settlement’s unforgettable historian and unofficial goodwill ambassador. His wife, Gloria Marks, whom he met when she was a patient at the colony, now runs the tour operation. She plans to be in Rome for the canonization ceremonies, along with several other former patients.

Kalaupapa’s tranquility belies the treatment of its sickly outcasts, whose numbers reached a high of about 1,500 in 1899 and declined to about 350 in 1940. Drugs brought the disease under control in the 1940s and ’50s, and forced confinement ceased in 1969. Many patients left to start new lives in the outside world and renew acquaintances with their children, who were not allowed to reside with their parents at the settlement. Some, however, stayed because they had come to regard Kalaupapa as home, and they had been assured they could remain for the rest of their lives.

There now are 19 former patients, the youngest of whom is 67 and the oldest 89. The National Park Service, which administers Kalaupapa together with the Hawaii State Department of Health, has been holding community meetings to determine what should happen to the settlement after the last patient dies.

No outsider can visit Kalaupapa without first being invited by one of the former patients or without taking the tour. Visitors are limited to 100 a day, and they must be at least age 16. “That law was made by the patients,” says Bobby Starkey, the bus driver/guide on a tour in early June. “Why should anybody else be able to bring their kids down here when their kids were taken away at birth?”

Nancy and Donald deKiefer, of McLean, Va., are among the tourists on Starkey’s bus. “I came to see Kalaupapa before it goes away,” says Nancy, who grew up in Honolulu. “It’s such a beautiful setting.”

Nadine and Bob Hall, of Colorado Springs, Colo., also are on the tour. She was born on Kauai but had never been to Molokai. After her mother died in 1997, she learned that her maternal grandmother had leprosy and was exiled to Kalaupapa. “It was such a stigma for us,” she says. “Now it’s all speculation and I’m kind of at a loss … I am hoping to find out if she is in the cemetery here.”

She says visiting Kalaupapa is interesting, “but it’s sad … I was at the Kalaupapa overlook yesterday” (“topside” in Molokai at Palaau State Park). “I looked down at the peninsula, and I was feeling very sad knowing how they exiled them. I got teary-eyed.”

Molokai prides itself on having the atmosphere of the Hawaii of 30 years ago. Among its activities, visitors can golf on a 9-hole course, snorkel, kayak, deep-sea fish, scuba dive, take nature hikes, tour a coffee plantation and a macadamia nut farm, and visit Kalaupapa, a settlement for those who have leprosy.

Getting to Molokai: A ferry runs between Molokai and Lahaina on Maui twice a day. For information, go to www.molokaiferry.com.

Island Air flies Dash 8 prop-jets to Molokai from Honolulu and from Maui. Check the schedule at www.islandair.com.

Mokulele Airlines, www.mokuleleairlines.com, also flies to Molokai from various locations in smaller planes.

Getting to Kalaupapa: Kalaupapa National Historical Park, home of the settlement, cannot be reached by road because of the surrounding ocean and steep sea cliffs. There are three ways to get there:

— If you are in good shape and don’t have a fear of heights, take the Molokai Mule Ride down a 3-mile-long trail with 26 switchbacks (www.muleride.com; 808-567-6088).

— You can also hike down the trail.

— Or, take a 10-minute flight on a nine-passenger single-engine prop-jet through Pacific Wings (www.pacificwings.com; 888-575-4546).

Tourists cannot roam Kalaupapa on their own. Everyone must take a tour through Damien Tours (808-567-6171), which is timed to the arrival of the mule-riders and hikers. Those who fly may have a two-hour wait at the airport.

Where to stay: The modest but pleasant Polynesian-style Hotel Molokai is the island’s only full-service hotel (www.hotelmolokai.com; 808-553-5347). Its Hula Shores restaurant and bar — the only bar on the island — is where locals go to dine and drink, a good testimonial.

Numerous vacation rental properties also are available on the island. Check out www.molokailandandhomes.com (808-552-2233); www.molokai-vacation-rental.com (808-553-8334); www.molokairealty.com (808-553-3666); or Ke Nani Kai (association of apartment owners), www.knkrentals.com.