St. Philomena Catholic Church
Kalaupapa National Historical Park
Kalawao, Molokai, Hawaii
In use: 1872 – 1932
Number of interments: Unknown
Open: The national park is open Monday through Saturday, but the number of visitors is capped at 100 per day. Visitors must be at least 16 years old. Unless you are invited by a resident of Kalaupapa, you must take a tour offered by Damien Tours of Kalaupapa.
Molokai, the most isolated Hawaiian island, has so little automobile traffic that it does not have a single traffic light. Molokai’s Kalaupapa Peninsula was used for more than a hundred years as a place to intern Hawaiians infected with leprosy. The area — where internees were sentenced to live until 1969 — became a National Park in 1980.
The first case of leprosy documented in Hawaii was found on the island of Kauai in 1835. It’s believed that that Chinese, imported to work in the sugar cane fields, brought the disease with them, but that’s impossible to say when whalers and missionaries brought so many other diseases to the vulnerable Hawaiians.
Since there was no cure for the disease, infected victims were rounded up and exiled to the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Surrounded by such rough seas that ships could land only rarely, sufferers were often thrown overboard and told to swim. A 2000-foot cliff on the southern side of the peninsula kept them penned in.
Although Hawaiians had lived on the peninsula previously, they were displaced by order of King Kamehameha V in order to isolate the leprosy victims. The first group of exiles consisted of nine men and three women dropped off on January 6, 1866.
New internees found an area with few buildings. The sick often lived in caves or such lean-tos as they could cobble together. Supplies were seldom delivered, so those who were strong enough grew taro, sweet potatoes, and fruits, and gathered seafood from the oceans and tidal pools.
In 1864, two years previous, Joseph de Veuster had arrived in Honolulu. Before long, the Belgian was ordained in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu and became known as Father Damien. Nine years later, he traveled to Kalaupapa to minister to the victims of leprosy.
With Father Damien’s help, the lepers built themselves homes, a church, and a hospital. Damien, who spoke Hawaiian, ministered, nursed, and encouraged them. In 1885, after 12 years of aiding the sick, Damien himself was diagnosed with leprosy. He eventually died of it on April 15, 1889. He was 49.
Damien was buried beside the walls of St. Philomena Catholic Church, which he had helped islanders expand several times over the years. He was buried in a site he’d selected personally, beneath the gnarled pandanus tree under which he’d slept when he first arrived on the island.
The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, to which Damien had belonged as a young man, erected a black marble cross above his grave. It read, “Sacred to the Memory of the Reverend Father Damien de Veuster. Died a martyr to his Charity for the Afflicted Lepers.”
A movement to have Damien beatified – the first step on the path to sainthood – began the year following his death. Bishop Koeckemann of the Sacred Hearts Mission, who had clashed with Damien in life, stymied the process. It gained momentum in the 1930s. Rome announced formal beatification proceedings in 1935.
Of course, Father Damien wouldn’t be allowed to rest. The National Park Service site says, “Because Kalaupapa remained an isolation settlement and the world could not come to his church and grave, Damien’s remains were exhumed in 1936 and reburied at Louvain, Belgium.” Hawaiians objected loudly, but an arrangement had been reached between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Ferdinand III of Belgium. Internees of Kalaupapa were left only with the cross marking his grave.
In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Father Damien venerable, the next step up the ladder to sainthood. A relic – Damien’s right hand — was returned to his original grave at Kalawao in 1995. He was canonized as a saint on October 11, 2009. Kalaupapa National Historical Park became the only National Park site connected with a saint. (Mother Marianne Cope, who cared for Damien in his final years, then stayed to tend the other victims of leprosy for 30 years, was canonized in 2012. Although she died in Kalaupapa, she is buried in Syracuse, New York.)
Damien in not the only person buried in the National Park. Since 1866, more than 8000 people, mostly Hawaiians, died at Kalaupapa. Damien himself buried around 200 a year. The National Park Service estimates there are 1200 grave markers and several thousand unmarked graves spread over 15 cemeteries inside the park. In Moku Puakala, the area around St. Philomena Church at Kalawao, lies Brother Joseph Dutton, who served with Father Damien, and other religious workers affiliated with the Baldwin Home for Boys.
With the discovery of sulfone drugs, leprosy could be put into remission and was no longer contagious. The isolation order was finally lifted in 1969, when the state of Hawaii officially decided to change the terminology to Hansen’s Disease, rather than leprosy, as a way to lessen the stigma of its sufferers. Internees at Kalaupapa were free to leave, but many of them chose to stay in the place they considered home.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter established Kalaupapa National Historical Park. The Park Service describes the mission of the park thus: “Kalaupapa serves as a reminder of a nation in crisis when Hawaiian people were exposed to diseases for which they had no immunities. It is a place where we can reconsider our responses to people with disfiguring disabilities or illnesses. Kalaupapa, once a community in isolation, now serves as a place for education and contemplation. It is a place where past suffering has given way to personal pride about accomplishments made in the face of great adversity.”
In 2009, President Barack Obama authorized a memorial for the estimated 8,000 former patients buried on Kalaupapa. Only about 1,300 lie in marked graves. The monument appears not to have been completed yet.
It can be challenging to visit Molokai. From Maui or Honolulu, you can catch an inter-island flight into Molokai or take the Maui-Molokai ferry from Lahaina. Life moves at a relaxed pace on Molokai, so plan to spend the night.
If you visit, National Park Service warns, “The 3.5-mile trail to the park is extremely steep and difficult. Hiking is physically demanding. There are no medical or dining facilities at Kalaupapa. Visitors flying or hiking in must bring their own lunches. Guests of residents also need to bring their own food supplies. All food and sundries must be brought in and all trash taken out. The mule ride ride concession provides lunch to its customers.”
There is also no place to stay over, unless you stay with one of the residents.
Most importantly, photographs of the few remaining patient/residents is forbidden without their written permission.
Information on the cemeteries of Kalaupapa
Information on visiting Molokai
Guided Mule Ride Tours
National Park Service brochures
Outdated page on the monument to named the unnamed victims of Kalaupapa
Other Hawaiian cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:
Seamen’s Cemetery in Lahaina, Maui
USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Oahu
Kawaiaha’o Churchyard, Honolulu, Oahu
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii
Keawala’i Churchyard, Makena, Maui