Rediscovering the forgotten who lived in Kalaupapa exile
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
The photo was kept in a shoebox in her mother's closet.
"We used to ask, 'Who is this man?' " said Anne Apo, pointing to a turn-of-the-century photo of a man wearing a crisp, cream-colored suit with a matching hat. "And she'd say, 'Oh, that's your great-grandfather.' "
Apo knew her great-grandfather had been sent to Kalaupapa.
"And that was it. That was it," she said. "That's all we knew."
It took months of work at the Hawai'i State Archives and the help of Ka 'Ohana O Kalaupapa, a nonprofit that helps Kalaupapa patients, to find the rest of the story: Apo's great-grandfather, John Taylor Unea, was forced to leave his wife and daughter behind in Hilo in 1893, and move to the Hansen's disease settlement with a 16-year-old son.
Both had Hansen's disease. Unea, who was 37 when he left for Moloka'i, lived in Kalaupapa for 27 years before his death. He ran the settlement's general store, taught at its school and recorded the first census of Kalaupapa in 1900. Thanks to her research and the 'Ohana, Apo found eight other relatives sent to Kalaupapa, including her great-grandfather's brother, who was in the settlement during Father Damien's time.
In her Kailua home this week, with photos of her relatives who were shipped to Kalaupapa spread on the kitchen table, Apo got teary-eyed as she talked about learning more about her great-grandfather.
"There's a story behind the face and it's really amazing," she said. "This showed they continued to live through all the loss."
Apo, 50, who started her genealogy quest two years ago and is still at it today, is among scores of descendants of Kalaupapa patients who are searching for the stories of their exiled relatives. Many of these stories, experts say, have been lost, forgotten or even hidden away because of the shame once associated with Hansen's disease.
But they are slowly being unearthed in a process that has gained even more momentum in recent months amid preparations for the canonization of Father Damien in October — an event 'Ohana members hope will educate people around the world not only about the struggles of the Sacred Hearts priest, but about the hardships Kalaupapa patients endured to create a community despite unbelievable odds.
The 'Ohana is leading the effort to put stories — and faces — to names by creating a database of the 8,000-plus people who were forcibly sent to Kalaupapa from the time it was established as a settlement for Hansen's disease patients in 1865.
The database, which has about 5,000 names so far, is being assembled with State Archives materials, including letters, settlement records and photos, and other resources, and is already being used to help descendants who contact the 'Ohana for information.
The names are also being gathered so they can be inscribed on a memorial to be erected in Kalaupapa.
"Each one of these names was a person, people who despite the circumstances came together to make a community for themselves," said Valerie Monson, secretary and coordinator for Ka 'Ohana O Kalaupapa. She added that sometimes the patients of Kalaupapa are overlooked or considered helpless in the story of Father Damien.
The names project, in part, aims to change that.
The early people of Kalaupapa "inspired Father Damien as much as Father Damien inspired them," Monson said. "He worked alongside people. He was friends with them. He spoke the language. He was there for God and he was there for the community."
Today, 19 patients still live in Kalaupapa, by choice.
The remote peninsula was home to the Rev. Damien de Veuster from 1873 to 1889, when he died from Hansen's disease at age 49. During his 16 years on Moloka'i, Father Damien ministered to Hansen's disease patients and worked alongside them to help create community.
He will be elevated to sainthood Oct. 11 in Rome.
The pending canonization is spurring more interest in the history of Kalaupapa — along with more inquiries from descendants around the country who want to find out about patients sent to the settlement, 'Ohana members said. Monson said she hopes that interest remains high in the coming years, as the group works to erect a memorial at Kalaupapa for patients.
The memorial got congressional approval in March, but still needs to undergo a planning and design process. Money will also have to be raised to pay for the structure.
Anwei Law, an author and advocate who is helping with the names project, said Father Damien's canonization presents an opportunity for the stories of patients to be told worldwide. And she said descendants of patients play a vital role in making sure the voices of those who were quarantined in Kalaupapa are heard.
"It does a disservice to the people of Kalaupapa and it also does a disservice to Father Damien if you leave out those voices," said Law, also the international coordinator for a Hansen's disease advocacy group called the International Association for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement, which is based in New York.
Law said the more that can be told about the patients at Kalaupapa, the more people will understand the incredible obstacles they overcame to work together and live productive lives. She said the goal is "to bring these folks back into their own history and make sure that we really look at them as part of the history."
Law recently published a book that includes oral histories of patients.
She said learning more about the patients of Kalaupapa gives added depth to Father Damien's story.
"When you look at the people who were close to him, I think he becomes more relevant because you really see why he was successful, but also that he couldn't do it by himself," she said. "People worked together. They helped each other."
Chris Mahelona, an 'Ohana supporter who lives in Spokane, Wash., said the search into his own family history has given him a new understanding of those sent to Kalaupapa.
"It's not just like a Social Security number to identify a person," he said. "You realize, oh, that person had a wife, a family and did all kinds of things."
Mahelona recently held a seminar in Spokane on Kalaupapa, and some 60 people turned out, in part to learn how to track relatives who lived in the settlement.
Mahelona said he started researching his own genealogy about five years ago.
His grandfather, great- uncle and great-grandfather were all sent to Kalaupapa. In his research, he has also found some 36 other people who are probably relatives.
Apo, who started her genealogical search with the photograph of her great-grandfather, said the most important part of her research is making sure that it's preserved for her children.
She has carefully catalogued everything she's found so far in a binder, including handwritten letters her great-grandfather wrote to Honolulu as the storekeeper, with information on what the settlement needed.
"I think it's important for our children to know these things," she said. The patients, she added, "fought for their lives. I think it's amazing that they found the strength to live against all odds. They're all heroes."