FAIRHAVEN, Mass. » The Rev. Patrick Killilea always imagined he would live here in South Coast until the end of his career. Killilea, affectionately known as Father Pat among his parishioners, has spent the past 13 years in Fairhaven and has only had two assignments outside the area since he was ordained in 1969.
"I was always glad to come back home," Killilea said while sitting in the rectory conference room early this month.
But a trip to the former Hansen’s disease colony on Kalaupapa, Molokai, in 2004 changed everything. Killilea, who is 68 but "only admits to 48 publicly," couldn’t imagine not returning.
"I just got a feeling during Mass there, completely out of the blue, that there was a calling for me to stay," he said. "I had never anticipated that level of flashbacks and excitement even for a year after I returned. It was a heavenly call from God to go back."
Killilea had returned to Kalaupapa once before, in 2006 as the parish’s fill-in pastor for three months.
In July, Killilea will be leaving his post as pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Fairhaven to return as the permanent pastor at St. Francis Church in Kalaupapa.
The Rev. Jonathan Hurrell, provincial superior of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary’s U.S. province, said Killilea will start July 1 in Kalaupapa.
The Saint Damien of Molokai Church in Kaunakakai will also gain two other Sacred Hearts priests this summer, Hurrell said. The Rev. William Petrie, former provincial superior of the East Coast province, will start as pastor in August; and the Rev. Michael Kelly, who has worked for 39 years in the Bahamas, will become priest-in-residence July 1.
Most learn about leprosy’s disfiguring effects in tales of biblical times. In previous eras those with Hansen’s disease were sent to secluded colonies in order to avoid infecting others. In Hawaii the infected were sent to Kalaupapa, an isolated peninsula on Molokai.
Today Hansen’s disease, a bacterial infection that damages the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes, is treatable with antibiotics, saving patients from disfigurement. Because of this, Kalaupapa has not been used as a colony since 1969 and is now a national park.
Fewer than 20 patients, most of them seniors, still live in Kalaupapa, along with national park workers.
"Some of the patients there have visible disfigurements, but others received medicine in time and just look like you or me," Killilea said. "Now a big problem they face is that their immune system has been compromised so they are vulnerable to other diseases."
The island is also the spot where one of Killilea’s role models, St. Damien, also a Sacred Hearts priest, first settled in 1873. Damien lived in Kalaupapa for 16 years caring for those with Hansen’s disease until he succumbed to it himself.
"Now it’s much different than in St. Damien’s times," said Killilea. "The patients there chose to be there and are well taken care of, but it is still very isolated."
Killilea’s passion for his future assignment is apparent as he draws a map of the island and describes the mongooses he saw during his last visit to Kalaupapa.
The wildlife and year-round 80-degree weather are far from the only differences Killilea will experience once he moves.
"I don’t expect to have many people in church, but I will help build morale," Killilea said.
"I’ll miss the sacramental celebrations like baptisms and weddings," he said. "But I won’t miss shoveling the snow."
Star-Advertiser writer Pat Gee contributed to this report.