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Hawaii: Poignant trip on Molokai takes on added meaning

December 14, 2012|By Jay Jones
  • Molokai's former leper colony is now a national historical park, reached by air or by a 3.5-mile trail.
Molokai's former leper colony is now a national historical park,… (Ron Garnett / Hawaii Tourism…)

There's an added incentive to visit the Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai. Sister Marianne Cope, a nun who made caring for Hawaii’s lepers her mission, was elevated to sainthood in October.

The leper colony at the village of Kalaupapa, accessible only by a steep, 3 1/2-mile trail, is among the most remote of the sites operated by the National Park Service. It is reached by an arduous hike – there are 28 switchbacks along the road – or by mule or by mini-bus. The van is provided by Father Damien Tours, which also offers a package including round-trip air from Honolulu to Kalaupapa.

The isolation was intentional as a means of preventing spread of the disfiguring disease, which nowadays is called Hansen's disease. In the 1880s, the disease reached crisis proportions in the then-independent island nation.

Sister Cope, commonly known as Mother Marianne, arrived in Hawaii in 1883 at the request of King David Kalakaua. She had been a hospital administrator in Syracuse, N.Y., and her response to the plea for help was simply, “I am not afraid of any disease.”

Visitors to Kalaupapa – once a “forbidden” village because of its leprosy-afflicted residents – tour St. Philomena’s Church, at which Father Damien, the widely known Belgian priest, preached to his banished flock. They also visit his grave as well as the former gravesite of Mother Marianne. (Her remains were relocated to her home parish in Syracuse after her beatification seven years ago.) The facilities the priest and nun oversaw – Father Damien died of Hansen’s disease in 1889 – remained in use until 1969.

If you're planning to visit Kalaupapa, know that state law requires all visitors to secure a permit from the Hawaii Department of Health before visiting. Regardless of how you plan to access the town beneath towering cliffs, you’ll need to work with Gloria Marks at Father Damien Tours, the only person authorized by Health Department officials to issue permits. Visitors must be at least 16 years of age.

The fly-in tours leave Waikiki at 8 a.m. and return about seven hours later. The cost is $298 per person. Tours operate Mondays through Saturdays. If you're planning to reach the settlement by mule, you'll need to make arrangements at least two weeks in advance with Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tours. The price is $199 per person.

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