In the Mule-Steps of St. Damien of Moloka’i

By Dr. Joe McAleer

How did St. Damien of Moloka’i do it?

I’m not just referring to his extraordinary 16-year ministry to the victims of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in the untamed wilderness of a remote Hawaiian island. His was a life of service to “the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters” that began in 1873 when this 33-year-old Belgian priest -- feast day May 10 -- arrived at the Kalaupapa settlement on Moloka’i.

No, I’m talking about transportation.

Kalaupapa, where lepers were forced into exile beginning in 1866, sits at the base of the tallest sea cliffs in the world, formed eons ago (like all of Hawaii) from volcanic eruptions. It was chosen for its inaccessibility. The surrounding seas are treacherous, making access by water difficult. A tiny airstrip now admits prop airplanes, but in Fr. Damien’s day, the only way in and out was to traverse the 2,000-foot cliff face by foot or by mule (shown above). 

Pilgrims to Kalaupapa today can do the same. If you choose the mule ride, as I did, you are guaranteed an unforgettable — if terrifying — experience.

Saddle Up
The 20-minute flight from Honolulu to Hawaii’s “quiet island” (and how) set the peaceful, contemplative tone for the pilgrimage. There are 1 million people in Honolulu, and just 7,000 on Molokai, with nary a traffic light or McDonald’s in sight. The jovial taxi driver from the airport had the burly build that has made Moloka’i a source for N.F.L. linebackers. 

I had never ridden a mule before, let alone seen one, when I arrived at the ramshackle barn of the company that ran the mule rides, as well as arranged your admission to Kalaupapa (access is by invitation only) and guided tour. As for the mules, I expected a Nazarene donkey, but these beasts of burden were as big as horses. I was brimming with “Bonanza”-like confidence as I saddled up, along with 12 others and three guides. The mules know what to do, we were told — just sit back and enjoy the view. 

And what a view! The 2.9 mile trail hugs the cliff, plunging precipitously down 26 switchbacks, with few guardrails. The trail itself is an obstacle course, narrow and muddy, filled with boulders and potholes. I muttered aloud my Rosary, reviewed all my sins, and prayed to St. Damien as my ride, “Akila,” slipped and slid and bounced all over the place. How he found his footing is the stuff of miracles!

Then and Now
After 90 minutes, we arrived at the bottom, where we de-muled and boarded a school bus for the guided tour. Although Kalaupapa is run today by the National Park Service, leprosy patients still live there, so much of the settlement is off limits. 

“You have to reconcile the beauty and peace you see today with the hardship, grief, and tragedy of Fr. Damien’s time,” our guide said. Indeed, Kalaupapa is a quaint village with well-kept bungalows, manicured lawns, a general store, post office, and church. This is Middle America in Paradise, set against breathtaking scenery. 

But when Fr. Damien arrived nearly 150 years ago, the peninsula was a wretched wilderness. Forced into exile, never to see their families again, lepers were shipped to Kalaupapa and thrown overboard if they refused to disembark. They were given one change of clothes and one week’s worth of food. Most died of exposure. More than 8,000 people were sent to Kalaupapa from 1866 until the forced exile law was repealed in 1969. 

A tapestry in St. Philomena's Church depicting Fr. Damien.

Answering the Call
Father Damien, then Joseph De Veuster, arrived in Hawaii on March 19, 1864, and was ordained a missionary priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, taking the name Damien. After a decade of service throughout the islands, he answered the call of his bishop in 1874 to go to Moloka’i. 

Like Mother Teresa, Fr. Damien ministered to the lepers, determined to maintain their dignity and improve their lives. He literally hacked away the jungle and built a settlement: homes, churches, hospitals. No one cared for these people, but Fr. Damien regarded them as children of God, and dedicated his life to them, even dressing their wounds and digging their graves. 

“I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “I am the happiest missionary in the world.” 

In Fr. Damien’s 16 years, the community grew from 816 patients to more than 3,000 patients, of whom 2,300 died. In the end, he contracted leprosy himself, and died there in 1889.  

One year before Fr. Damien died, Mother Marianne Cope and six Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis of Syracuse, New York, left their hospital service in Honolulu to assist full-time at Kalaupapa. Father Damien was relieved that his ministry would continue. Mother Marianne, who tended to the dying saint, is now St. Marianne of Moloka’i, canonized in 2012.

Mercy Now, or Justice Later
Father Damien and Mother Marianne are great models of the Christian life well lived. After all, we are told by Scripture, by the words of Jesus Himself, that we must do works of mercy in this life, or else we shall be turned aside from the company of Heaven in the next (see Mt 25:31-46). So the ordinary Christian life is one marked both by Divine Mercy received and by mercy in action. Jesus reinforced that in His words to St. Faustina: 

I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it. I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbor: the first — by deed, the second — by word, the third — by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for Me. By this means a soul glorifies and pays reverence to My mercy (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 742).

Does that mean we have to go to far off countries, tend to lepers, and do all the things Fr. Damien and Mother Marianne did? Not necessarily. Jesus also told St. Faustina: 

[M]any souls … are often worried because they do not have the material means with which to carry out an act of mercy. Yet spiritual mercy, which requires neither permissions nor storehouses, is much more meritorious and is within the grasp of every soul. If a soul does not exercise mercy somehow or other, it will not obtain My mercy on the day of judgment. Oh, if only souls knew how to gather eternal treasure for themselves, they would not be judged, for they would forestall My judgment with their mercy (1317).

If we are called to walk more literally in the footsteps of Fr. Damien and Mother Marianne, God will help us on our way. If we are called to exercise mercy closer to home or in the ways of prayer and words of encouragement, God will work powerfully through those means, as well.

No matter what, God will work wonders through us if we are responsive to His grace and mercy, just as He did through Fr. Damien and Mother Marianne. 

Quiet Dignity
Mother Marianne moved Fr. Damien’s settlement to the opposite end of the Kalaupapa peninsula, where the hospital she built stands today. What remains of the saint’s personal handiwork is a fitting tribute: the church Fr. Damien built himself and dedicated to St. Philomena (above), a simple, yellow-washed building with cemetery beside the sea. Father Damien’s body was returned to Belgium, but his right hand was re-interred here. It is a place of quiet dignity, precisely the gift that the shepherd Damien brought to his flock.

A pilgrimage to Kalaupapa isn’t easy — but what pilgrimage is? Properly conducted, a pilgrimage leaves you spiritually renewed, on a divine high that, in my case, only grew as I scratched my way back up the cliff face, praying that Akila was up to the return journey.

Looking back on that memorable day, the bumper sticker presented to all riders rang true: “Wouldn’t You Rather Be Riding a Mule on Moloka’i?”



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