by Mike Neubauer
3,000 feet below the world’s highest sea cliffs on the island of Moloka’i, sits a small seven square mile peninsula completely cut off from the rest of the world. On three sides the fierce Pacific Ocean rages as the inhabitants of Kalaupapa live in virtual seclusion from the rest of the world. What is now one of the most beautiful and scenic spots in all the Hawaiian Islands, was not long ago the most feared word in the native tongue.
Rewind to the late 1850s; In Honolulu, a new disease was spreading throughout the population. It was being called “mai pake,” or the “Chinese sickness,” because it seemed to be coming into the islands from Chinese cargo ships and spreading rampantly throughout the city. The Hawaiians who had recently become “discovered” by the Western world, were seeing an influx in residents coming from the far east. Chinese, Japanese and filipinos were being introduced to the land to help work sugar cane fields. With them, new diseases were being introduced as well. With no immunity to diseases of the outside world, Hawaiians became very susceptible to these illnesses. And though there were many, none were quite as terrifying as the mai pake.
The mai pake, or leprosy, was in essence a death sentence. If someone were to be found with the disease, they were being quarantined. Anyone associated with the individual, be it family members, neighbors, or friends were scorned, shunned and turned in to the local authorities. Since no one at the time new how the disease was spread, and there was no cure for it, the community became frantically cautious. Cases of parents turning in their own children, or vice versa were common. And once a family member was turned in, if the community where they lived new about it, the rest of the family would be ostracized. Families had to move to a new area, never again speaking of their sick family member. To have the mai pake was more than a death sentence. It tore about homes, communities and cultures.
In early 1866, King Kamehameha V opened Kalaupapa peninsula as a refuge for those suffering with the disease. Because of the rough waters surrounding the peninsula, boats would come as close as they could, then the crew would throw the sick into the sea with whatever belongings they had. Those that made it to Kalaupapa were on their own at first as there wasn’t any law and order there. There was nothing. Nothing but impenetrable sea cliffs and an impassable Pacific Ocean.
Chaos ensued at Kalaupapa until several Catholic and Protestant missionaries started arriving at the peninsula. Most notably were Sister Marianne Cope and Father Damien. Father Damien arrived in 1873 and devoted the rest of his life to caring for the masses at Kalaupapa. At its peak, there were over 1200 men, women and children living on the isolated peninsula. Nearly all afflicted with the disease. Â Thousands lived and died in Kalaupapa, abandoned by their families and forgotten by the world.
In the early 1930s, new drugs started to show promise. And by 1969 forced isolation at Kalaupapa was no longer required to those Hawaiians who had contracted the disease. Today there are still patients of the mai pake (now referred to as Hansen’s Disease) living the remainder of their lives in the small community of Kalaupapa which in 1980 became a National Historical Park.
Father Damien passed away of the disease himself in 1889, at the age of 49 as a beacon of love and hope to all those afflicted with the disease in Kalaupapa. His works remain alive today in the community and throughout the world. His devotion to the sick and outcast patients of Kalaupapa and Kalawao county serve as an inspiration to millions around the world. And on October 11, 2009, Father Damien was canonized in Rome. In attendance, some of the remaining patients of Kalaupapa National Historical Park.
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”