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Jerry Costello

Community, Camaraderie, and Lelepali

On May 15, 1942, Edwin Lelepali came to Kalaupapa. He was 14 years old then, victim of a dread disease for which there was no cure at the time. Kalaupapa is an enclave on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, reserved for those who had leprosy and made famous by the life and death of Father Damien de Veuster. One by one, the older residents there are dying out, and when Edwin Lelepali passed away earlier this year he was one of the last, the aging pillar of Kalaupapa. He was 88.

                I read about Lelepali in the Hawaii Catholic Herald, where Valerie Monson wrote a loving tribute to his life. He was known for his trademark “God bless,” which he invariably used to bid farewell to visitors and friends alike. But, as Monson pointed out, it was he who was God’s blessing to the Kalaupapa community and to his multitude of friends. For all of them, it was “Let Pali do it,” using a familiar form of his last name. He did indeed—and nobody did it better.

                Pali organized the big things and the small. He got the parties going; he was always the first to lead the music. A friend recalled that he got another TV set so everyone could watch the Super Bowl together. And he had a key role to play in Protestant church life in the colony. When the last minister left, he was the one who delivered the sermons. Sometimes they were full of insights; at other times they were full of laughs.

                Once again Valerie Monson got it right. “He understood the importance of community and camaraderie in such a remote place,” she wrote, “where people with leprosy had been forcibly isolated.”

                It wasn't always thus. Lelepali recalled his sentiments when he was first sent to Kalaupapa, and they were not happy ones. “I was told I had one week to pack my suitcase,” he said. “That was the saddest day of my life. Leaving Honolulu, that was even more sad.”

                But it took him remarkably little time to adjust. After three months, he decided he never wanted to go back to his old life. And even though medicine was introduced to treat leprosy successfully during his years there, he stuck to his word.

                That’s not to say that it was always easy. His first wife, Libby, died at an early age. But he found joy—as he invariably did—with his second wife, Rosie, with whom he shared a love for music, bringing people together with his guitar playing. Together, too, they organized the festive Mother’s Day celebration, which paid tribute each year—island-style—to all the women of Kalaupapa. “I wanted them to know how much we appreciate them,” he said. Hallowe’en parties, New Year’s Eve parties, he led them all.

Days before he died, he made sure there was enough food for the Super Bowl party he got together but couldn’t make himself.

                While he was a pillar of the Protestant church on Kalaupapa, he often stopped at St. Francis to make sure his Catholic friends were well taken care of. That’s the kind of man he was.

                And to everyone—friend or visitor, neighbor or stranger, Protestant or Catholic—he offered a prayerful message: “God bless.” That’s the kind of man he was, too.



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