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The small Hawaiian island of Molokai is receiving attention of a heavenly sort. On October 11, Father Damien will be canonized as the newest saint of the Catholic Church and the first from Hawaii. A native of Belgium, Father Damien deVeuster arrived in Kalaupapa in 1873 at the age of 33. Unlike most residents of the leprosy colony, he came voluntarily as a Catholic missionary priest. He lived on Molokai until he died on April 15, 1889 after contracting the illness.
Leprosy was one of many diseases to ravage the Hawaiian islands after contact with the outside world. The thousands who contracted it (now called Hansen’s disease) were forced to live in Kalaupapa. Father Damien built homes for the exiles and a church. A float in this weekend’s Aloha Parade represented Father Damien’s church. The float was followed by young people from all the islands — their blue shirts created a wave from the parade’s beginning at Ala Moana Beach Park, across the Ala Wai canal and out of sight. The impressive parade presence is one sign of the local enthusiasm over Father Damien’s canonization. About twenty patients still live at Kalaupapa and eleven of them will travel to Rome for the canonization. They are among almost 650 people from Hawaii who are making the trip, including a troop of Boy Scouts who plan to document the journey online.
Modern treatments control Hansen’s Disease and the patients who remain on Molokai do so voluntarily. Those who wish to may live there for their lifetimes. The area is still under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Health. But the National Park Service is preparing to restore and preserve the old sites. Kalaupapa is a small peninsula of less than 5 square miles that juts out from the high sea cliffs on the windward side of Molokai. Tours are now available but it is a remote location, chosen for the leper colony because it was (and still is) relatively inaccessible. The beauty of the area and the allure of the saintly story are likely combine to attract visitors in increasing numbers.