I recently was invited to a brief pilgrimage to the island of Molokai’i, just off the island of Oahu, where I have lived on and off for the last seven years. My inter-island travel has been disappointingly sparse in that time, so I was very happy to accompany the Catholic student group to the little island to the east.
Just over a century ago, Damien De Veuster, a Catholic priest from Belgium, planted roots there in the midst of a leper colony. The leprosy “patients” were exiled there shortly after being diagnosed with the dreaded disease. On the north side of the island, there is a finger of land jutting out into the ocean at the base of some of the tallest sea cliffs in the world, the only way in or out was by boat. It was a perfect, albeit tragic, isolation. They knew they went there to die, but Damien taught them to live nonetheless.
We approached along the famed north shore of the island, along some of the shorter sea cliffs, which was just breath-taking. We were welcomed by some of the Sisters of St. Francis, whose matron, Marianne, is up for canonization and who carried on Damien’s work after his death in 1889. Danny, my sponsor (campus minister at the University of Hawaii) had been to the island a few times and had a great rapport with the sisters, so ours flowed naturally from their acquaintance. The students also had the joy of sharing the weekend with Fr. John, one of the priests at the UH Catholic Student Center.
The weekend was very unstructured, which was a welcome respite from my very busy school and professional life. In fact, I forced myself to leave all my responsibilities on Oahu, including my third kidney (looks like a MacBook laptop). It was a decision I was very happy to have made, considering all the natural and historic substance I would absorb over the weekend. The only reading material I took was Heschel, for which I am equally glad to have decided.
It is said that there are well over 7,000 gravesites on the Kalaupapa peninsula. Funerals were frequent, as treatment was nonexistent in Damien’s time. Death was no stranger to patients, nor to Damien. The silence that greets you upon watching the plane disappear into the horizon serves as a constant reminder of the solemnity of the place and the imperative of reverence.
We celebrated Mass twice over the weekend, once in St. Philomena Church, on the Kalawao (east) side of the peninsula, which Damien built himself, and again in St. Francis Church on the Kalaupapa (west) side. In St. Philomena, there are holes cut in the floor to allow late-stage Hansen’s sufferers to spit excess saliva and phlegm during Mass. Just outside the church lays the largest of several cemeteries on the island, in which many graves remained unmarked due to the high number of deaths per day (sometimes as high as four every 24 hours).
Despite the incredible emotive depth at Kalaupapa, the natural beauty is simply impossible to ignore. Each day, we watched from our visitor’s quarters as dolphins played and leapt from the ocean just yards from a gorgeous black sand beach. The sun never stopped shining and the breeze never seemed to die. Had it not been for the painful past the area had forced upon it, I might have thought the peninsula just a few degrees closer to heaven than ever before have I had the privilege of experiencing.
I was the first up each morning and often the last to bed, making the most I could of the time I had in that beautiful setting. The people there were all incredibly congenial and invited us to games of volleyball each evening. The community itself is so isolated that nobody locks their doors and never take their keys from their cars. It seemed very Jeffersonian, leaving me longing for a simpler life, one which I was fortunate to have had the time to experience last weekend.
It was such a relief to leave all my worries and cares a few miles back on Oahu while I prepared for the close of my final full time semester as an undergrad. Fr. John, Danny, and Rabbi Heschel made great sabbatical partners, and I am indebted to each of them. If you ever have the opportunity to visit the island of Molokai’i it is an opportunity you should not pass up.