The Last Congregation of Kalaupapa

The Last Congregation of Kalaupapa
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Kalaupapa has its own rules.

The settlement, as everyone who lives there calls it, is the only town on an isolated peninsula on a sparsely populated Hawaiian island. Its history began a century and a half ago, when the first boatload of leprosy sufferers arrived -- the unwilling founders of what in different times was known as a leper colony, or a leprosarium. Decades after modern medicine neutralized the disease, Kalaupapa is the largest remaining settlement of its victims in the United States.

During the 12 months I lived there, in 2008 and 2009, we lost nine patients, almost a third of those who remained; since I left, three have died. These days, with so few patients left, there's no moving forward after a death in Kalaupapa. There's really not much moving forward at all. No new patients, and no children, have come in decades; every death is one step closer to the end of Kalaupapa as they have known it.

In a settlement defined by tragedies -- parents and children torn apart, years of forced isolation, funeral bells that once rang every day -- this is the one that no one expected. The place that no one wanted to create, the place where no one wanted to go, is coming to an end. And even a prison eventually becomes a home, becomes something you mourn.

While in Kalaupapa, I started going to church. I wasn't religious; I went at first simply to meet people I hadn't yet encountered. But when a church's entire congregation consists of seven people, attendance can't politely be a one-time thing.

Kalaupapa had two active congregations, one Catholic and one Protestant. The Catholic church, St. Francis, had the more robust membership -- perhaps not surprising for a place whose most famous former residents are a priest and a nun. (Both Father Damien and Mother Marianne, a nun from Syracuse, New York, who ran a hospital for leprosy patients in Honolulu before coming to Kalaupapa in 1888, were sainted in the years after I left.) Unlike the Protestant church, it also had a full-time clergyman, a tiny Belgian octogenarian priest named Father Felix.

But I was raised Presbyterian and never quite figured out when to stand or kneel during Mass, so that first Sunday morning I joined the handful of congregants at Kanaana Hou, a yellow building whose churchyard was ringed with a stone wall and overgrown bougainvillea. We gathered on the church stoop a few minutes before eight, facing the hale kahu, or minister's house, which had stood empty for years. Once every few months, a visiting minister would come to preach at Kanaana Hou, but usually it was up to the congregants to run things. This meant that services were short, simple, and often personal -- and that I found myself in the unexpected situation of really liking church.

When everyone was gathered, someone pulled the rope to ring the heavy bell in the steeple. We entered together, singing along as a park worker named Richard played "When the Saints Go Marching In" on his recorder. Church Cat, a sleek, orange fellow who looked decidedly less inbred than most of his settlement peers, waited for us inside, stretching in the sunlight in the center aisle.

That week it was up to Pali, an 81-year-old patient and the church's de facto deacon, to lead the service. He'd outsourced some songs and readings to other attendants in advance. Other songs he chose on the fly from the church's English and Hawaiian hymnals, challenging Richard to accompany us or strumming and drumming along himself -- he was missing fingers on his right hand -- on his perpetually out-of-tune guitar.

When it came time for the sermon, Pali stood up, put his hands in his pockets, and spoke briefly and obliquely about struggling with temptation. We closed, as the congregation always did, by singing the first verse of "Blest Be the Tie that Binds," the same hymn that punctuates Thornton Wilder's Our Town:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

After the service, Pali stopped me. "You'll be here next week, yeah?" he asked. The next week, he asked the same thing. A few weeks later, he told me that the following Sunday it would be my turn to lead the service. That week was the end of April, which meant that we left Kanaana Hou as the congregation always did on the last Sunday of each month, driving across the peninsula to hold an unusually solemn service inside Siloama, the church's predecessor from the days when the settlement was on the Kalawao side.

The congregation was formed in 1866, the same year the first patients arrived, and the church building dedicated five years later. The building -- a white one-room chapel with a narrow steeple that stood out against the dark green cliffs -- had been rebuilt or restored more than once, but it was a reminder that our current congregation was the latest, and perhaps the last, in a direct line that began with some of the first patients to be sent there.

There were large tombs in the churchyard, a thick Hawaiian-language Bible on the altar, and an outhouse with the "patient" and "kokua" signs left intact from the days of strict segregation. On the wall behind the altar was a plaque, installed in the 1950s by another Kanaana Hou congregation. It read:

THRUST OUT BY MANKIND
THESE 12 WOMEN AND 23 MEN
CRYING ALOUD TO GOD
THEIR ONLY REFUGE
FORMED A CHURCH
THE FIRST IN THE DESOLATION
THAT WAS KALAWAO.

Brooke Jarvis is a 2013 fellow in environmental journalism at Middlebury College and author of When We Are Called to Part, from which this piece has been adapted.

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