A sacrament meeting in the LDS chapel on Molokai's northern shore is as a tableau of healing, faith, hope and life in an exotically beautiful setting. These uplifting elements stand in contrast to this peninsula's history of disease, despair, discouragement and death.
To this chapel come the three remaining Latter-day Saints of Kalaupapa, a settlement set aside for patients of Hansen's Disease, the dreaded scourge of the ages known as leprosy. And to serve them every Sunday, holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood from Molokai's Hoolehua Ward walk down a steep mountain trail to preside over the humble meetings, administer the sacrament, teach Sunday School lessons and, when requested, give blessings for comfort and healing.Two scriptures in particular are exemplified in this setting. One is the Savior's declaration: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matt. 18:20.) The other is the Master's eloquent teaching: " . . . when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God." (Mosiah 2:17.)
For generations, leprosy's saga has blighted the history of Kalaupapa peninsula. The first authenticated cases of the disease in the Hawaiian islands go back to the 1830s. In 1865, Hawaii's King Kamehameha V signed the "Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy," and on Jan. 6, 1866, the first "shipment" of patients were sent to a settlement at Kalawao, a short distance from the current settlement of Kalaupapa. In its early history, patients were treated inhumanely. As there was no dock, patients entered the settlement by jumping overboard the ships bearing them to their banishment. Those reluctant to jump were pushed.
"If they could not swim, they drowned," said Kuueli Bell, one of the three Latter-day Saints at Kalaupapa, who serves on the patients council and is the settlement's postmaster. "People were sent here to die. This was a living tomb."
Bordered on three sides by the ocean and on one side by then-trailess and unscalable cliffs ranging up to 3,000 feet, the peninsula was as an open-air prison. Patients had no way to leave.
Sister Bell explained that compassionate souls such as the Catholic Church's Father Damien and Brother Joseph Dutton, and nuns such as Mother Marianne Cope were instrumental in changing the plight of the patients. "We love Father Damien," she said. "He came here in 1873, and he worked with the patients for the rest of his life. He contracted Hansen's Disease himself, and died here in 1889. We never met him, of course, but we feel like we know him. We talk about him all the time, like he was here just yesterday."
Sister Bell and another Church member, Lucy Kaona, were among special guests at ceremonies in Rome when Pope John Paul II beatified Father Damien in 1995.
Sister Bell, Sister Kaona and fellow Church member Peter Keola talk about another legend of compassionate service, Jonathan Napela, who was baptized into the LDS Church in 1852 by Elder George Q. Cannon and was instrumental in helping missionary work excel in Hawaii. In the 1870s, his wife, Kitty, contracted Hansen's Disease and was sent to the peninsula. Unable to bear living without her, he accompanied her and devoted the rest of his life to serving her and other patients. When patients first arrived, they did not have even housing. He appealed for government assistance to build a more comfortable place for them to live and to get better medical care and food. He eventually contracted the disease himself. He died in 1879, two years before his beloved wife died.
"This was a terrible place to come to in the old days," Sister Bell said. "But people like Father Damien and Brother Nepala made a big difference. They were good friends."
After meetings on a recent Sunday, Hoolehua Ward Bishop Leonard Elia stood outside the LDS chapel here. He explained that the LDS Church services at the settlement come under the jurisdiction of the Hoolehua Ward, and that it's primarily members of the elders quorum who come each week to officiate. Frequently, he comes himself. On that day, he left his home "topside" about daybreak to walk down steep trail cut in more recent years. The trail, which descends some 1,700 feet in about three miles, is a popular tourist attraction. (See related article on this page.)
"There's a reverent air to this place," Bishop Elia said. "I consider this to be sacred ground, made sacred by all the suffering of the Saints and of all the people who have come here, many to die of leprosy. Some came as helpmates to their wives or husbands, sons or daugthers. Because of their great love, they eventually caught the disease and died."
Bishop Elia said there are about 8,000 graves on this leaf-shaped peninsula that is about two-and-a-quarter miles wide and just about as long.
While there have been several hundred Latter-day Saints here in years past, the Church at Kalaupapa is in its declining years, a fact that brings a note of sadness. In 1969 the practice of sending patients to the settlement for isolation was abolished. The disease is now controlled by medication and isolation isn't necessary. While Sister Bell and others were forced to come here originally, they now consider this their home and choose to remain, although the quarantine has been lifted. "When these members are gone, the Church won't be here any longer," Bishop Elia said, explaining that no new residents are permitted to move in as the settlement is in transformation from a community for patients to a full-fledged national park, and proselyting is not permitted. There will be no renewal of Church membership, unless residents seek out the gospel on their own. Missionaries visit occasionally, bringing company to the three members who reside here.
There is no younger generation at Kalaupapa waiting in the wings to carry on the work since no one under 16 is allowed in the settlement. Children, who are more susceptible to Hansen's Disease, are not permitted to visit or live here, although patients who are under treatment are not contagious. "As a precaution, children are kept away," Bishop Elia said. "Old-timers tell me they miss having children around. It doesn't seem natural to be in a place where there are no children."
Both Sister Bell and Sister Kaona know the emptiness of living in a childless society. Children who had been hospitalized for Hansen's Disease on Oahu were brought here for protection after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. Sister Kaona came here as a little girl. Sister Bell, who showed the first symptoms of the disease when she was 6, came here when she was a teenager. She married another patient, Edward Kaukahi Bell. To them were born a son and a daughter. "Our children were taken from us," said Sister Bell. "We had no contact with them. None. It was a great sorrow to have my children taken from me, but I didn't want them to get the disease. I was more fortunate than some. My mother took my children. Lucy also married another patient; her family took her child. My mother brought my children to the receiving station so I could see them. I couldn't touch them, but I could look at them through a glass partition." Her son died at age 32 of a heart attack; her daughter lives on the island of Oahu.
Sister Bell, Sister Kaona and Brother Keola don't know how they contracted Hansen's Disease, but none of them seems bent on asking, "Why me?"
"I think we just accept it," said Sister Bell. She has no obvious signs of the disease to the casual observer, but Sister Kaona and Brother Keola bear evidences of how it has ravaged their bodies. However, a spirit of cheerfulness, optimism and gratitude dominates Church meetings they attend at Kalaupapa. Sister Kaona, in bearing her testimony, said, "I know that Heavenly Father loves me because He has been so good to me."