The bonds of Kalaupapa


POSTED: Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Eleven residents of tiny Kalaupapa village will be seated in the VIP section, along with King Albert II and Queen Paola of Belgium and other dignitaries from several countries, as Father Damien De Veuster is declared a saint.

They are among the last 20 surviving “;historical”; Hansen's disease patients who were separated from their families and isolated at the settlement because of the disease. The state ended the quarantine policy in 1969, giving residents the choice to live out their lives on the quiet peninsula.

The former patients gathered as a group in the midst of a clamorous airport departure scene Thursday, the target of news media cameras because of their special tie to the new saint, who worked for 16 years in Kalaupapa until his death from leprosy in 1889.

“;We've prayed every day for years for Damien to become a saint,”; said Meli Watanuki, 74, who has lived on the peninsula since 1964. She and husband Randy, a National Park Service employee, serve as sacristans at the village Catholic church, preparing the altar for the 5:45 a.m. daily Mass.

She's exuberant about the celebration ahead, but points out that it's not a brand-new experience. Watanuki attended the 1995 beatification ceremony in Brussels, a highlight of which was her encounter with the late Mother Theresa of Calcutta. “;She was a fan of Father Damien. She made the pope listen.”;

Gloria Marks, 71, considers her participation a memorial to her late husband, Richard Marks, whose efforts pushing the sainthood of Damien included a personal audience with Pope John Paul II in 1983.

“;I feel sad that so many people died before this happened. They would have been excited to go,”; said Marks in an interview at Kalaupapa. “;Richard wanted to go.”;

Richard, who died in December, was the face of Kalaupapa for hundreds of visitors as their Damien Tours guide around the settlement.

Gloria Marks continues the tour business that the couple began in 1966. She is the only business entrepreneur among the residents, also the owner of Fuesaina's, the settlement bar that bears her Samoan name.

Born in American Samoa, she was a student at St. Joseph School in Waipahu when diagnosed with the disease. She finished high school by taking classes at the former Hale Mohalu Hansen's disease hospital in Pearl City. She has worked since she arrived in Kalaupapa at age 21. She previously held positions as a seamstress, typist, dining room help, groundskeeper and janitor at the Kalaupapa store.

Marks grounded some recent European visitors, cutting their tour short because they ignored the guide's admonition not to photograph a patient without permission.

“;They took pictures. (The person didn't) want it,”; she said fiercely. “;They have to respect that when you are here, it's our place. In Europe there will be no choice.”;

Seawind Tours and Travel has a strategy to whisk the patients away from public view should they be targeted by paparazzi in Europe.

“;We're protective of each other,”; said Norbert Palea, 68, the youngest of the patients. He was diagnosed with the disease at age 5. He and his contemporaries benefited from the 1940s development of sulfone drugs that curtail the disease.

Palea, who attended the University of Hawaii and studied design in California, was a designer and tailor for Hawaii-clothing manufacturers. With years of travel and show business acquaintances, Palea is invariably involved in the jam sessions whenever a musician, halau or choir visits to entertain the settlement. “;I know any song you can think of, Hawaiian, rock, Filipino.”;

Clarence “;Boogie”; Kahilihiwa, 69, has a memory that provides a direct historical link with the saint.

“;There was a fragile old lady who lived at Bishop Home when I came here. They called her Tutu Meheula,”; he said in an interview at Kalaupapa. “;Her picture was in photos with Father Damien. He held her hand. She was 12 years old when he died. To me she was a connection with him.”;

Kahilihiwa has worked in maintenance and heavy labor jobs at the settlement since he arrived as a teenager in 1959. A prayer card with Damien's image is tucked in the pew he always occupies at St. Francis Church in Kalaupapa.

“;You don't have to be Catholic to be connected to Damien,”; he said. “;We all are human. We can all love one another.”;

He and his wife, Ivy, will be on the tour. Like other surviving patients, they chose to stay in the settlement after quarantine was lifted in 1969.