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Frank McGinity: Pilgrimage to Molokaʻi Reveals Extent of Father Damien’s Ministry

Committed priest transformed leper colony while helping to raise awareness, response to disease

To see the infinite pity of this place,
The mangled limb, the devastated face,
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod,
A fool were tempted to deny his God.

He sees, and shrinks; but if he look again
Lo, beauty springing from the breast of pain!
He marks the sisters on the painful shores,
And even a fool is silent and adores.

— Robert Lewis Stevenson,
May 1889 after visiting Molokaʻi

The year was 1865. The Hawaiian government was becoming alarmed at the spread of leprosy throughout the islands. Something had to be done. As a result, the government passed “The Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy.”

The law required that all men, women and children with symptoms of the disease be rounded up and shipped by boat to the island of Molokaʻi. Families would be torn apart because a father or mother, a son or daughter would be identified and literally dumped on the island, never to be seen again. Over the years, 8,000 would be settled there.

We were in Honolulu for the annual meeting of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a religious group founded in 1340. Its purpose is to preserve and protect the Christian places of worship in Jerusalem. Currently, it provides financial support to Bethlehem University and various Christian schools in the Middle East.

While in Hawaii, a group of 40 of us took several small planes to visit the leper colony on Molokaʻi.

We called our trip to Molokaʻi a pilgrimage because we would visit the churches erected there by Father Damien, and see the good work he did in serving the lepers — at great risk and sacrifice to himself. In fact, any discussion about the colony invariably leads to Father Damien.

In 1873, he volunteered to care for the lepers of Molokaʻi, in the area now called Kalaupapa Peninsula. When he arrived, he found total chaos. Drunkenness, fighting and gambling were the norm. The conditions were atrocious. There was very little shelter or organization. Damien had to find a way to bring harmony to the tumultuous situation.

Father Damien, known as Saint Damien of Molokaʻi, spent 16 years serving the leper colony on the isolated island in Hawaii in the late 1800s before contracting the disease himself. (Frank McGinity photo)
Father Damien, known as Saint Damien of Molokaʻi, spent 16 years serving the leper colony on the isolated island in Hawaii in the late 1800s before contracting the disease himself. (Frank McGinity photo)

Slowly, he brought law and order through his leadership skills. He sent numerous letters to the authorities in Honolulu asking for food, clothing, lumber and other materials to use for the care of these desperate people. He built several churches, provided spiritual guidance and took care of the medical needs of his people — despite limited resources. He also built homes for orphaned boys and girls.

Because of his efforts and sacrifice, his work eventually would receive worldwide acclaim. Even Crown Princess Liliʻuokalani came from the mainland and bestowed on Father Damien the Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua in 1883. 

Around this time, Father Damien experienced pain in his foot. He soaked it in what he thought was warm water, but it was boiling water and he felt nothing. He had finally contracted the disease of leprosy himself. Fortunately, Joseph Dutton would come to the island, along with Sister St. Marianna Cope, to continue Father Damien’s work.

Although the cure for leprosy, now officially known as Hansen’s disease, was developed in the 1940s, Hawaii’s policy of isolating lepers was not officially abolished until 1969. However, the forced isolation at Kalaupapa Peninsula ended in 1949, which allowed those remaining to leave the island. Some actually stayed; currently, 10 previously diseased residents remain on the peninsula. In 1976, Kalaupapa was designated a national historic park.

Leprosy is still a problem, particularly in Africa, Asia and South America. It affects the nerves, skin and upper respiratory tract, often causing changes to one’s physical appearance. For centuries and into the early years of Kalaupapa, a leprosy diagnosis amounted to a death sentence. Today, it is curable.

Forty years after Father Damien’s death in 1889, his body would be exhumed from his simple grave on Molokaʻi and transported first to Honolulu, then to San Francisco and finally to his final resting place in his home country of Belgium. He received a hero’s memorial and burial, and was laid to rest in St. Joseph’s Chapel in Louvain, Belgium. The Catholic Church would canonize him as a saint in 2009.

— Frank McGinity is a Santa Barbara resident. The opinions expressed are his own.

Although Father Damien was buried at St. Philomena Catholic Church after his death from leprosy, his remains were later reinterred in his hometown of Louvain, Belgium. (Frank McGinity photo)
Although Father Damien was buried at St. Philomena Catholic Church after his death from leprosy, his remains were later reinterred in his hometown of Louvain, Belgium. (Frank McGinity photo)
Transportation options are limited if you wish to visit Kalaupapa Peninsula, the former site of Molokaʻi’s leper colony. (Frank McGinity photo)
Transportation options are limited if you wish to visit Kalaupapa Peninsula, the former site of Molokaʻi’s leper colony. (Frank McGinity photo)

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