Two months before his sixth birthday, in 1947, Norbert Palea calmly climbed aboard a tiny Andrew Flying Service propeller plane. Eleven other Hawaiian boys and girls were already in their seats. All of them were slightly older; all of them were crying.
Palea and his fellow passengers were suspected of having contracted Hansen’s disease, better known as leprosy.
During the mid-19th century a wave of terminal diseases crashed onto the shores of the Hawaiian Islands and wiped out more than half of the native population. The deadliest of them was leprosy. In an effort to stop the disease from spreading, afflicted Hawaiians were exiled to the isolated peninsula of Kalaupapa on the small island of Molokai.
From 1866 until 1969, thousands of Hawaiians were forced to live in the Kalaupapa colony, taken away from their brothers and sisters, their sons and daughters, their mothers and fathers.
“I remember my mother telling me, right before I got on the plane, ‘Norbert, get on that plane and whatever you do, never look back,’” Palea said.
He remembers leaving as vividly as if it had happened a week ago.
“As we started to pull away, I looked back. I still can see her face. I will never forget the agony or the tears on her cheeks. Never.” That’s when five yearold Norbert broke down. He sobbed along with the other children. But for some reason, as the plane took off, he started to sing.
Sixty-two years later, this October, Palea was one of 11 Hawaiian men and women who were traveling again. This time their eyes were filled with wonder, not tears, as they looked out the windows of their luxury coach bus at St. Peter’s Square in the heart of Rome.
The men and women on that bus make up more than half of the 19 surviving Hansen’s disease patients who were sent to Kalaupapa. Those 11 spent the first two weeks of October touring Europe in celebration of the canonization of Father Damien de Veuster.
St. Damien was born Jozef de Veuster in 1840 to a family of Belgian farmers. As a teenager, he decided that he wanted to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and enter the priesthood. He joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, took the name Brother Damien, and began studying.
Damien’s brother was supposed to travel to Hawaii as a missionary in 1863. He fell ill and was unable to travel, so young Damien begged to take his place. Despite the fact that he had not yet been ordained, Damien was allowed to go.
A few months after arriving in Honolulu, Damien was ordained at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace and began his missionary work. The young priest spent almost a decade in Hawaii before volunteering to start a Catholic mission among the lepers of Kalaupapa. Damien was only supposed to stay in the leper colony for a few months. He never left.
Father Damien spent 16 years caring for the exiled Hawaiians in Kalaupapa. He also helped build houses, churches, hospitals, and a community on the island. His close contact with the patients eventually resulted in him contracting Hansen’s disease himself. In 1889, Damien died of the disease among his friends in Kalaupapa.
The “leper priest,” a nickname he picked up posthumously, was buried a few yards from the church he built and filled with congregants every day. He stayed there until 1936, when his body was exhumed and brought back to his native country. The saint’s body still rests in a tomb beneath St. Anthony’s Chapel in Leuven, Belgium.
St. Anthony’s was one of the highlights of the canonization tour for the pilgrims from Hawaii this October. The trip, organized by Seawind Tours of Honolulu, was a non-stop whirlwind through four cities in Belgium, followed by five days in Rome and one in the medieval Italian city of Assisi.
“It was truly the trip of a lifetime. It was really exciting watching the patients and seeing how much they enjoyed themselves,” said Seawind President Randy King.
The tour was open to the public, and 523 people in all signed up for the opportunity. But King said the focus, from planning the trip to its end, was always on honoring the Hansen’s patients.
The patients had nothing but praise for the tour. They saw sites and went to places they could only dream of before, including the underground tomb of Hansen’s disease’s most famous patient.
“It’s about two flights of stairs down,” Kalaupapa patient Boogie Kahilihiwa said of Father Damien’s tomb. “It’s very simple, but really serene. When we got down there we all got a feeling that Damien was waiting there to greet us. Man, it was heavy.”
Inside the tomb, the patients stared at the 3,000-pound lid on top of the black marble coffin, surrounded by black marble walls. They tasted the stale air trapped below the 17th-century Belgian chapel. The 11 colorful Hawaiian leis placed on top of the tomb—one from each visitor—seemed strangely fitting amid the sea of black as the Hansen’s patients paid tribute to one of their own.
Steve Prokop, the National Park Service Superintendent at Kalaupapa, accompanied the patients to Damien’s tomb. He said it was the most powerful moment he experienced on the trip.
“It wasn’t the physical part, but all the energy,” Prokop said. “What they felt, that strong connection, you could feel it present in the room.”
Back above ground, the mood was much lighter.
Everywhere the patients went they were treated as celebrities. Reporters from around the world crawled over one another for a photograph of “Damien’s people.” Roman police officers stopped traffic and cleared paths for the group as they took in the historic sights of the Eternal City. On the morning of the canonization the patients, in their wheelchairs, slipped through a side entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica and took their seats, 25 feet away from the very center of the Catholic world, the throne of St. Peter.
“I go to Mass every day of my life and I’ve certainly never seen anything like that. The whole trip we were treated like very important people,” said septuagenarian Kalaupapa patient Gloria Marks.
The group received special invitations to the American embassies in both Belgium and Italy, where ambassadors, congressmen, and senators gushed at the chance to meet them. The humble travelers also rubbed shoulders with cardinals from around the world, and met King Albert II and Queen Paola of Belgium.
“They were welcomed with open arms every place we went,” Prokop said. “After all the things that they’ve gone through, it was really nice to see them being treated with the utmost respect.”
The attention and respect was as foreign to the patients as the ancient ruins, massive buildings, and strange languages that surrounded them. Since biblical times, people afflicted with leprosy have been shunned by society. Unsightly sores and a misunderstanding of how the disease spreads led people to believe that “lepers” were unclean and immoral people. They were treated as outcasts and regularly abused. The people of Kalaupapa were certainly no exception.
The first Hawaiians sent to Kalaupapa arrived on the peninsula with no food, shelter, or drinking water. They were surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean and trapped on the fourth by cliffs that shoot 2,000 feet up before leveling off on the rest of the island. They had no way to contact the outside world or their families. They were exiled with no way to ease their pain and no hope of survival.
Thanks to the sacrifices of dozens of missionaries like St. Damien, and of the patients themselves, conditions at the settlement improved greatly over the years. But the prejudice and suffering survived well into the 20th century.
“They made sure every day that you knew you were unclean and not fit to sit amongst mankind,” Palea said of non-patients living in Kalaupapa, particularly those working for the Board of Health.
Kalaupapa’s youngest living patient, Palea still has strong memories of his painful youth. He recalled one instance that occurred during a rare visit from his mother. Palea was young, maybe 10 years old, as he sat and talked to his mother through the partition that separated them. When she reached out to hold his hand, the Board of Health agents monitoring the visit scolded her.
“She turned to them and said, ‘You’re going to tell me that I can’t touch my own boy?’ Of course she still touched me,” Palea said. “They told her she wasn’t allowed to come see me anymore.”
The patients were treated as secondclass citizens well into the 1960s—decades after a cure was discovered for the disease. Kahilihiwa, who worked as a plumber alongside non-patients in the settlement, remembers the separation between him and his co-workers.
“We could work side-by-side all day, but when four o’clock came you went your way and I went mine. That’s just the way it was,” he said.
Any visits to a non-patient’s home had to be accompanied by written permission from the Board of Health. Recollections of the dances and picnics where Palea met his wife of 32 years, Ivy, are soured by the memory of this treatment. Patients always had to stay separated from others during such events.
After a lifetime of humiliation it would be understandable if the patients hid themselves from the outside world. It would be understandable if they didn’t trust strangers. It would be understandable if they were bitter. But they’re not. The “aloha spirit” for which Hawaii is famous is as strong in Kalaupapa as anywhere else in the islands.
“Of course we are full of love,” Palea said, pointing to his chest. “All the indignity and suffering—they took everything from us. Love is the only thing they couldn’t take. It’s all that’s left in here.”
Kalaupapa today is a peaceful town, a throwback to quiet Eisenhower-era communities, where flowers bloom in neatly kept lawns and old dogs nap in the middle of one of the three main streets. It is a town where there are more churches than stop signs and last names are seldom used.
In 1969, the state of Hawaii removed all restrictions from the Hansen’s patients, who were now free to leave Kalaupapa. It only takes one trip to this tropical paradise to understand why most of them stayed.
The only sounds are crashing waves and soft trade winds blowing through palm trees. They whisper past the small general store, the lone gas pump, and the tiny bar on their way out to the black sand beach and breathtaking sea cliff backdrop.
But what gives Kalaupapa its true beauty is the spirit of the people, which many attribute to St. Damien. Damien was gone long before today’s patients were even born. But the legend of his jovial laugh and indefatigable work effort still provide inspiration to his flock.
“He is our spiritual leader,” Kahilihiwa said. “It’s just that he is one of us. To me, he’s like a big brother.”
It didn’t come as too much of a surprise to the patients that their big brother’s roots weren’t too different from theirs. All of them said that Tremeloo, the town where Damien was born and raised, reminded them of home.
Tremeloo was the first stop on the canonization tour and the warm reception helped to ease the group’s transition into Europe.
“I loved Belgium. The people there were just so friendly, it was a highlight of my trip,” Kahilihiwa said.
During their day in Tremeloo, the patients visited Father Damien’s old house—which has been converted into a museum—and attended an outdoor Mass celebrated by Cardinal Godfried Danneels. Belgium’s king and queen were also in attendance, along with most of the Catholic population of Tremeloo.
At the end of the Mass, Danneels thanked the patients for coming, and a church choir from Honolulu sang a Hawaiian hymn. As the first verse came to a close, without thinking, Norbert Palea started to sing; the other patients soon joined in.
“We just started echoing the chant. The cardinal and the king and queen said to keep singing so we went through the song five or six times in a row. By the end we were just as loud as the choir,” he said.
Palea was a lifetime away from the five-year-old boy on the airplane, but his voice had a similar effect. The people of Tremeloo shuffled away from the service with their eyes full of tears. Some of them stopped to talk to the patients.
“The people were all crying, and they came up and kept asking if they could touch me,” Palea said.
So the man who 60 years ago was not allowed to touch his own mother gladly took the hands of complete strangers. The same people who were told they were unclean, immoral, and unfit for mankind received similar requests throughout their two-week trip.
“A lot of people asked. They wanted to be able to say they touched one of Damien’s people,” Palea said. “They wanted to know how we could endure so much and still be strong. They told me that to them, we were like saints.”
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