Church keeps faith with those ordered to Kalaupapa

MAKENA – About 250 people gathered for the first “Kalaupapa Sunday” service in remembrance of leprosy patients who were “isolated from their families” and “left with nothing but their faith in God,” a reverend said.

The service held at Keawala’i Church in Makena was championed by the Rev. Kealahou Alika, who sought to honor those who suffered from the illness now called Hansen’s disease, and to publicize the work of Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa, a nonprofit that helps local families reconnect with their ancestors.

“I think the lesson in Kalaupapa is fear,” Alika said. “What are we afraid of? What the isolation did for Hawaiians is break up the families, and what you find is people are realizing that we have family” related to Kalaupapa patients.

More than 8,000 afflicted people were banished to Kalaupapa, a remote peninsula on the north side of Molokai.

The first group of a dozen patients arrived at Kalawao on Jan. 6, 1866; less than six months later, the Siloama Church congregation had been formed, though the church itself would not be completed until 1871.

“I think people tend to forget the Siloama Church, where you have all these people isolated from their families,” Alika said. “Whether they were Christians, Buddhist, Jewish, we sometimes quarrel amongst ourselves about religion, but that’s all they had and that was enough.”

The story of Kalaupapa patients is important to the nonprofit, which published the minutes of the congregations at the Siloama Church and others from 1866 to 1928. The minutes, which were in Hawaiian, were translated and published in a book titled “Adjourned With a Prayer,” coordinator Valerie Monson said in an email.

While the story of Siloama Church is only one of many in the long history of Kalaupapa, the dwindling number of patients was a cause for concern for the nonprofit and Alika. That is why the group traveled to Kona in June for the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ to propose the Sunday service to the board.

Alika and the group created a packet, to be used as a reference material by UCC ministers in Hawaii for future “Kalaupapa Sunday” services, with materials primarily produced by Kalaupapa patients, including songs, books and sermons.

The packet included poems from Taka Harada, a 73-year-old Kihei resident who initiated the Kalaupapa Sunday event and whose late brother was a leprosy patient.

“The number of patients were getting less and less, and they were getting worried with what was going to happen to Kalaupapa,” said Harada, a member of Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa. “At the same time, in my mind, I was thinking we needed to do something in the United Church of Christ.

“Over 8,000 patients went to Kalaupapa, and most of them were Hawaiian, so if you were Hawaiian you probably had a relative in Kalaupapa.”

Harada’s brother Paul was diagnosed with leprosy at age 14 in 1945 after visiting a doctor for a severe burn injury that he never felt.

“I was just a couple months old,” Harada said. “I never knew him until he came back nine years later. . . . Paul was lucky he responded very well to medication because he always thought by 1950 he would be dead.”

Paul Harada wound up getting married, and Taka Harada said that he would visit Kalaupapa several times a year to go diving and fishing with Paul.

“Our family was really fortunate that we got to see our brother and really accepted him wholeheartedly and just enjoyed visiting him,” said Harada, who had six brothers and three sisters. “Nearly all of the siblings visited him in Kalaupapa.”

While Harada had fond memories of his brother, he and Alika hope that more stories of patients who were sent to Kalaupapa will be heard and remembered during the annual Kalaupapa Sunday service.

The Paia Hawaiian Protestant Church and the Pukaana Congregational Church in Kona also hosted Kalaupapa Sunday services, Alika said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at