The first thing you need to know if you wish to visit Molokai, home of the famous leper colony where St Joseph Damien worked and died, is that you MUST PLAN AHEAD. Kalaupapa, the remote side of this Hawaiian island, is only accessible by boat, helicopter or mule. Yes, you heard correctly: MULE. And in order to visit you need to have permission and be accompanied by a guide...but is it worth it?? Yes!! And again, a resounding YES!
It's a long 3 miles going back and forth along 26 switchbacks on a steep mountainside to reach the colony. Several lepers still live there...8 at the time I visited. They choose to live there even though they have been "cured" of their illness (now known as Hansen's disease).
Besides St Damian, who came to serve the sick before there was a known cure, there was also Mother Marianne Cope (at the time of my visit she was a Blessed but now she is a Saint!). She, along with several other heroic sisters, founded a school and a home for girls. On the opposite side of the island there was a home for boys.
We met several of the lepers while visiting the church but there is a law in the town that prohibits taking pictures of them. I also met a nun who invited me up to the convent but I was restricted by my guide. The former lepers who live in the colony create their own laws. At the time I was there, cats had the right of way to cross the street!
The less inhabited side of the island is where the lepers were originally dropped off. It was here that St Damien constructed his church. This is the original part that he built himself by hand:
The graveyard next to the church is where Joseph Dutton, a strong and dedicated laborer in Kalaupapa, is buried along with other lepers.
The scenery is breathtaking but what really strikes you are the stories...stories of people torn away from their families at the first sign of this dreaded disease, brought in fear like animals on ships, only to be thrown over the side and let make their way as best they could to an island of despair. Only when St Damien arrived were people able to realize their dignity as children of God.
After taking in the sights we were fed a simple picnic lunch near the water, surrounded by palm trees. The sky was perfect and the water pristine.
The ride back was steep but the mules had no problem getting us home.
Looking down as we neared the top, I thought about how I had been privileged to witness a piece of history, a piece of humanity, and a piece of sanctity. I thought about how meaningless my own life could seem in comparison...how my priorities were so often shallow...my perceptions self-centered and one-sided. The depth of sacrifice and love I witnessed just in the remnants of a bygone time resonated within me. I was grateful to God not to be called to such greatness and at the same time humbled to know that if I was, I have no idea if I would have been able to respond.
I'm truly glad God gives us the crosses that we are capable of carrying and the grace we need, when we need, to be able to carry them. I hope and pray that someday, if He asks heroic things of me, with His grace I will do them.
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For more information, this is the website I booked through. I made a day trip of it, taking a bumper flight from Oahu early in the morning and returning late in the evening. I rented a car at the airport and drove to the mule tour site using GPS. I went alone as a single female and never had a moment of fear or nervousness.