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Leprosy advocate put lei on pope


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POSTED: Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Elizabeth Kuulei Bell told her life story to 500 people at a Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement convention in September 2007 and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Bell, 76, who was diagnosed with leprosy when she was 6 years old and lived out her adult life at Kalaupapa, told the crowd: “;We want this part of Hawaiian history to be remembered with honor and dignity.”; She was president of Ka Ohana o Kalaupapa, a group working to ensure that the stories of the 8,000 people who were quarantined are preserved after the last patients are gone.

Bell died Sunday at Hale Mohalu care facility in Honolulu. She had retired in 2006 after being Kalaupapa postmistress for 17 years and was, for years, the leader of the Mormon community in the Molokai settlement.

Bell was one of several former Hansen's disease patients chosen to interact with the late Pope John Paul II at the June 1995 beatification of Father Damien DeVeuster in Brussels. She presented the pope with a 54-inch wili lei and, despite advance instruction to hand it to an aide, the muumuu-clad Hawaiian matron draped it over the pontiff's shoulders. The crowd and news photographers loved it.

“;It was unheard of, but he leaned forward and let her kiss him on the cheek,”; said Julie Sigler, a Kalaupapa nurse. “;Later when we went into Father Damien's crypt, there was a group of solemn Greek Orthodox people in robes there. Kuulei and Lucy Kaona started singing a Hawaiian song, we held hands and sang. It was chicken skin to the max.”;

Bell lived to hear the state Legislature's 2008 resolution apologizing for the banishment and the toll it took on patients and their families.

But she was still waiting for the success of a bill pending in Congress to establish a Kalaupapa monument to recognize the patients who died there, most of whom are in unmarked graves. Piolani Motta of Honolulu read Bell's testimony to a U.S. House committee in 2006.

“;In spite of her illnesses, she found time to be an activist for the patients,”; said Motta. “;She felt there were ways to work with others, the state Department of Health and the National Park Service. Her legacy was that you have to work together, to work things out.”;

Valerie Monson, secretary of Ka Ohana o Kalaupapa, said Bell “;understood how important it is that descendants of the people who died in Kalaupapa will be able to see their names. She said when her great-grandchildren come there, she wants them to be proud.”;

She was still an activist, proud that the actions of the Ohana and help from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs succeeded in getting dialysis equipment put into operation at the settlement, allowing ailing patients to stay there.

Most recently Bell was lobbying the Legislature for an increase in the pensions paid to former patients for their work at the settlement, which hasn't been changed in 30 years.

“;She was very regal, in her lauhala hat with a feather lei,”; recalled Monson. “;She was a strong presence and stood her ground. She was willing to be seen and talk to the press.”;

Bell was born in Honolulu.

She is survived by daughter Lisa Hookano-Holly; brothers William Stone and James Huihui; sister Mary Joyce Guess; one granddaughter and one great-granddaughter.

A funeral service will be held at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Nuuanu Ward, 622 N. Judd St. Friends may call from 6 to 9 p.m. The family asks that aloha attire be worn. Burial will be Feb. 18 in Kalaupapa.