Preserving the Poignant Stories of Kalaupapa

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Photo: Joseph William Lapilio III
Joseph William Lapilio III holds a photo of his great-grandfather, Bonepake Lapilio, and his granduncle, Bernardo Palikapu Lapilio. Bonepake and his wife, Louisa, longtime residents of Kalaupapa, had seven children, including Bernardo and Joseph’s grandfather, after whom he is named. – Photo: Courtesy

Joseph William Lapilio III clearly remembers a chickenskin moment in fall 2015 when he was in Kalaupapa for work. During an afternoon break, he strolled to a cemetery along the beach. Suddenly, something made him stop and look down. Right in front of him was the headstone of his great-grandmother, Louisa Lui.

“By that time, I knew I had a great-grandmother who lived in Kalaupapa, but I was not expecting to find her grave that way,” said Lapilio, who provides fundraising, strategic planning, teambuilding, event management and grant writing services for nonprofits and community groups. “I thought, maybe she led me here.”

Lapilio had known for decades that his great-grandfather, Bonepake Lapilio, was sent to Kalaupapa in 1889 at the age of 7 after he was diagnosed with leprosy, now known as Hansen’s Disease. Bonepake’s older sister, Mele, then 13, was also afflicted with the disease and forced to relocate with him. They were two of some 8,000 men, women and children, the majority of them Native Hawaiians, who were torn from their loved ones between 1866 and 1969 and exiled to the remote Molokaʻi peninsula.

Bonepake met Louisa there, they married and had seven children. The joy that brought them turned to despair when their keiki, including Lapilio’s grandfather, were taken from them and placed in an orphanage on Oʻahu.

“The cruel irony is my great-grandparents were taken from their families when they were young, and when they had children, their kids were taken from them,” Lapilio said. “I can’t imagine what that was like – to lose your family twice.”

In 1909, Bonepake tested negative for leprosy, but he stayed in Kalaupapa with Louisa until she died in 1917. He then moved to Oʻahu to be close to his ʻohana and was buried at Diamond Head Memorial Park after his death in 1950. Lapilio is grateful to have learned quite a bit about his great-grandparents with the help of Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa. Today, he is the executive director of that 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which was established in August 2003 thanks to the vision of the late Bernard Punikaiʻa, who was sent to Kalaupapa in 1942 at age 11 and became one of its most vocal leaders.

The organization’s mission is to honor the people of Kalaupapa, to promote their value and dignity, and to preserve and perpetuate their poignant stories. Its Restoration of Family Ties program, which received a Preservation Commendation from the Historic Hawaiʻi Foundation in 2015, has connected more than 800 families with their Kalaupapa ancestors and created a strong network of support for them.

“We don’t want those who were banished to Kalaupapa to be defined by their disease,” Lapilio said. “They created families; they opened businesses; they donated to many worthwhile causes; they were active members of a vibrant, loving community. Our mission is to accurately document their stories and to share them with the world. It is our kuleana to ensure they are never forgotten.”

Join the ʻOhana

You don’t have to have a familial link to Kalaupapa to join Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa, which is supported solely by grants and donations. To coincide with Kalaupapa Month in January, the organization is officially kicking off a fundraising campaign to construct a memorial on the long-vacant site where the Baldwin Home for Men and Boys operated from 1894 to 1932.

The names of everyone who was sent to Kalaupapa will be engraved chronologically on the memorial, according to the year they arrived there. The estimated cost of the project is $5.5 million for construction and an additional $5 million for an endowment to maintain it in perpetuity. For more information about Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa, visit: www.kalaupapaohana.org.