ST. LOUIS, Missouri – What do Catholics, Protestants, Japanese Buddhists and Mormons have in common? This may sound like the beginning of a corny joke, but in the late 19 th century, there was nothing comical about this interfaith collaboration. More than 100 years ago, these four religions united in the spirit of charity on a leprosy settlement known as Kaluapapa on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai.

Finding common ground rather than a battleground, a Catholic priest (Father Damien) and a Mormon elder (Jonathan Napela) were pioneers of interfaith and intercultural work long before it was acceptable to do. But this sort of interfaith collaboration was not limited to the 19 th Century.

Today, the LDS Church can be seen joining hands with friends and partners in other churches. We are doing service projects together, fighting gambling, and upholding traditional family values in our communities, all with like-minded brothers and sisters who are not of our faith. This interfaith collaboration is grounded in the famous statement by St. Augustine, “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty, and in all things charity.”

In a recent St. Louis lecture, Dr. Fred Woods, professor and the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, presented his research of the beautiful people of Kalaupapa, Hawaii – a story that can inspire us today.

“I began my historical research about the Mormon Pioneers there,” he said. “But as I learned what happened here, I realized I had a better story to tell.”

Partnering with the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Dr. Woods gave two presentations – the first at the Pope John Paul II Auditorium of the Cardinal Rigali Center, and the second at the LDS Frontenac Chapel, just a few miles east of the St. Louis Temple. After a Polynesian musical number performed by natives of the islands, who are members of the Pagedale Branch and students from Washington University, Dr. Woods told his story.

Brother Jonathan Napela, superintendent of the leper settlement.

Jonathan Napela, an elder in the LDS Church, went to Kalaupapa as a kokua, or volunteer helper, in 1873, after his wife, Kitty, contacted leprosy. That same year, Father Damien, a Catholic priest from Belgium, arrived to the secluded settlement where King Kamehameha V had banished all Hawaiian patients who suffered from the disease.

By the time Father Damien reached the leper settlement, Napela was superintendent of the colony. The two men became the best of friends. As Dr. Woods’ presentation progressed, it was clear that the endearing kinship between these two men developed because of the service they rendered together.

Father Damien, who labored in the leper settlement.

When both men arrived in 1873, the conditions of the settlement were deplorable. Father Damien, writing to the Board of Health noted:

They numbered 816.They passed their time, with playing cards, hula, drinking . Alcohol. Their clothes in general were far from being clean and Decent . The miserable condition of the settlement at that time gave it the name of a living graveyard.

Damien continued,

Many an unfortunate woman had to become a prostitute to obtain friends who would take care of her, and children when well and strong were used as servants . Under this pernicious liquor, the would neglect everything except hula, prostitution and Drinking.

At its peak, the settlement had nearly 1,000 residents, but today there are only about 30. Many of the residents have died, and the disease can now be controlled. But as Dr. Woods continued making travels to the island and doing research on the conditions there, acceptance and a sense of community were common themes in the interviews.

One of the Kalaupapa patients said,

Kalaupapa used to be a devil’s island, a gateway to hell, worse than a prison. Today it is a gateway to heaven. There is spirituality to the place. All the suffering of those whose blood has touched the land – the effect is so powerful even the rain cannot wash it away.

It was evident through Dr. Woods’ presentation that Father Damien and Napela were active workers on this isolated island. Dr. Woods called them, “Yokemates in charitable service.”

Even though the Napelas and Father Damien died long ago, their memory and example of interfaith and intercultural harmony still exist today. A former apostle, Elder Matthew Cowley, said, ” I went there apprehending that I would be depressed. I left knowing that I had been exalted. I had expected that my heart, which is not too strong, would be torn with sympathy, but I went away feeling that it had been healed.”

Dr. Woods has presented this lecture at various universities including MIT, Georgetown, Purdue (Calumet), Chaminade (Honolulu), St. Mary’s (Leavenworth KS) and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Other lectures are forthcoming in Texas and Washington DC. Telling the history and story of the way that Napela and Father Damien served the Kalaupapa community and especially how the patients served each other remains an inspiring example of compassion and collaboration.

Professor Woods is producing a 60-minute television documentary about the Kalaupapa story, which will be aired sometime next year.

Emulating their predecessors in ecumenical labor, the Rev. Father Vincent Heier and Dr. Fred Woods are fast friends today. They are collaborating on a book that will shed light on the commonality of their faiths.

Just as the Mormon elder Jonathan Napela found a true friend in Father Damien, so too Dr. Woods has found a true friend in a Catholic priest, the Rev. Father Vincent Heier. He is the director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Father Heier hosted Dr. Woods at the Cardinal Rigali Center. At the Frontenac Chapel, Father Heier fielded questions about Catholicism from the predominantly LDS audience. He has written and published a pamphlet called, “What Every Catholic Should Know about Mormons,” and now Dr. Woods and Father Heier are collaborating on a book about what Catholics and Mormons should know about each other.

“This book and event would have never come about if the Latter-day Saints had not had an active role with interfaith dialogue,” said Heier. “Coming together to learn about each other, and serve, is exactly what we should be doing.”

The Church has been prominently represented in the St. Louis Interfaith Partnership for many years. Members of the Church support the annual Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls dinner as well as serve on the board of directors.

Church members are regularly visible in ongoing service projects. Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls brings together members of the faiths of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Baha’i, Hindu, and other world religions. The IP/FBW mission statement is, “To promote peace, respect, and understanding among people of all faiths. Although we differ, we promise to love, and unite to serve.”