View from the Pew
Left: Jonathan Napela; right: Father Damien DeVeuster.
A professor looks at the lives of people who wove the community's tapestry of faith
"Saints of Kalaupapa" was the title Brigham Young University professor Fred Woods had in mind for a chronicle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Hansen's disease settlement.
The title stays, but the Utah scholar's perspective was changed by his visits to the remote Molokai peninsula and research on its history as the place of banishment for more than 8,000 leprosy patients.
"I decided to make it a story of the tapestry of Catholics, Protestants and Latter-day Saints working together," said Woods in an interview. "I realized there are a great many people of various faiths who were united in their service to their fellow man. The more I got involved, the more I could see that Kalaupapa is a model we need to follow in our own time."
Woods focused on two of the settlement's "saints" in two lectures yesterday at Chaminade University, an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Catholic university. He will present the talk again Oct. 21 at Brigham Young University Hawaii, which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary.
He tells about Jonathan Napela, one of the earliest Mormon converts in Hawaii, who chose to go to Kalaupapa as a "kokua," to take care of his wife, Kitty Richardson, who had contracted the disease. He was appointed by church leaders to be the presiding elder for LDS members in the settlement. Napela, who had been a judge on Maui, helped LDS missionary George Cannon translate the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian.
The couple landed in Kalawao at the east end of the peninsula in 1873, within a week of the arrival of Catholic missionary Father Damien DeVeuster.
"They became good friends," Woods said. Besides ministering to the spiritual needs of their separate flocks, the men partnered in constructing buildings and helping to organize the chaotic society of outcasts into a community. In their work as caregivers, both men contracted the disease. Napela died in 1879, before his wife, and Damien died in 1889.
STAR-BULLETIN / 1977
Interfaith collaboration is a way of life in Kalaupapa today, with members of the Mormon Church, the United Church of Christ and the Catholic Church inviting one another to their events.
Father Damien's service to the banished victims of the disease is better known, thanks to the attention he attracted in his own time from Robert Louis Stevenson and other writers intrigued by the story. In recent years, his cause for sainthood of the Catholic variety has proceeded through complex protocols of the church. The late Pope John Paul II declared him "blessed" in the second of three steps to sainthood.
Woods said, "I'm embarrassed to say I wasn't aware of Father Damien" until 2003, when he and his wife visited the settlement on an anniversary trip. He heard the stories of Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, another prospect for Catholic sainthood for her service there. In four subsequent visits, he has interviewed some of the 40 remaining patients, learning to bring along his guitar to sweeten the research time.
He found the interfaith collaboration that was rare in Napela's time is a way of life in Kalaupapa today, where the three remaining LDS members, the United Church of Christ congregation of Kanaana Hou Church and the Catholics at St. Francis Church are always invited to one another's events.
Like most visitors, he has found each visit a spiritual experience. One anecdote he shares is the time he went to the pulpit in the little LDS chapel to share his testimony: "There are two pulpits, one for the patients and the other for the visitors." The historic enforcement against contamination gave a touching insight into the depth of patients' isolation.
With the discovery of drugs that curtail the disease, quarantine was lifted in 1969, more than a century after it was started. Patients are free to travel from the colony, and visitors tour the place now administered by the National Park Service as a historic park.
Woods said: "Anyone who goes to Kalaupapa with an open heart is changed. My Kalaupapa visits made me want to be more service-oriented, to work with others of different religiousity and ethnicity."
That has become the theme song for Woods, who is professor of religious understanding at the BYU campus in Provo, Utah: "We are not always going to agree on doctrine, but we need to find more common grounds to serve rather than battlegrounds to divide us."
His Powerpoint presentation is peppered with quotations from authors and religious leaders about common goals of church people.
"In Napela and Damien's time, the epidemic was the great leveler. Today, I think disasters like Katrina and Rita, the devastation that strikes across all boundaries, is the leveler. It is a need to serve that brings people together."
Woods will return later this month wearing another hat, as executive director of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, for the dedication of Laie monuments that commemorate historical events in the LDS Church in Hawaii.
He is writing a book, "Gathering to Laie," about the establishment of the largest Mormon community in the islands. A video documentary of the "Saints of Kalaupapa" is in the works.