Molokai is one of the most remote of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands. And the village of Kalaupapa is one of the most inaccessible places on that island. Yet a few pilgrims manage to find it each year.
You see, in that tiny village in the late 1980s, a little church was turned from a crumbling, termite-riddled wood structure into a bright and tidy sanctuary – not because of its architectural appeal, but because of the person who had built it and served there. He was Father Damien, a Catholic missionary born Joseph De Veuster in 1840 in a little Flemish village in Belgium.
Damien's flock in Hawaii would turn out to be 700 lepers condemned to exile by the royal monarchy. The painful and disfiguring disease of leprosy had devastated the Hawaiian population. Damien's duty among the pariahs was supposed to last three months. But he stayed on, bathing ulcerated bodies, comforting orphaned children, burying the dead, and building Saint Philomena Church.
He could not know that the very year he left Europe, a Norwegian scientist had discovered the leprosy bacterium. It would be more than 50 years after Damien himself died of the disease whose effects he helped to soothe before a sulfone-drug cure would be found.
Beginning in the 1980s, a nonprofit group raised money – including $25,000 sent by an Aloha Airlines passenger who had found an appeal in his seat pocket – to fix up Damien's church. Now Saint Philomena and a statue in the United States Capitol building in Washington – one of two honoring Hawaiians – bear witness to the man who, while praising God, gave his life to the lowly and reviled half a world away.