Nonfiction from Kirby Michael Wright 

Saint Joseph’s Church

By Kirby Michael Wright 

JULIA WRIGHT HAD NEVER BEEN spiritually minded growing up in Honolulu, despite her notion she might someday become a nun. She only expressed that desire because it pleased Catarina, making her mother believe she was on the straight and narrow instead of daydreaming about boys morning, noon, and night. Julia disliked reciting prayers, kneeling in pews, and admitting her sins to old priests in Confessionals. Her disinterest in religion had followed her over to Moloka’i. She thought there was no time for God when her primary goal was becoming a country girl.  She had hated listening to babies bawl during Baptisms. She’d figured it might be different if the baby belonged to her, but Julia vowed never to get hapai again until after she was married.

She re-read her mother’s letter and felt the need to pray. She figured attending Mass would be a good first step. Sophie didn’t attend religious services on a regular basis, but on special occasions she visited Siloama Protestant Church. Because Julia was Catholic, Sophie suggested Father Joseph’s Church in Kamalo. It had been built by Father Damien in 1876 and was twenty miles east of the Cooke estate.

“Should take an hour in the Model T,” Sophie said. “A nice outing for the Gilmans.”

Julia wanted to tell Sophie the truth, that her being hitched to Chipper was a mere façade because the Cookes wanted a married couple. “My man may not want to drive,” Julia said.

“Tell him you want to see more of the island,” suggested Sophie.

Julia admitted she’d never been east than Kaunakakai.

Sophie told her she would appreciate the green east side of the island, especially the mountains and the way mist drifts the uplands. “You will find a whole new world on the east end,” she said.

                                      *                 *                 *

The drive east to Saint Joseph’s on Sunday morning was pleasant the first ten miles. Chipper Gilman was still reveling in his promotion to assistant manager. The excitement of advancing turned his face ruddy. He’d helped increase ranch profit ten-percent during his first six months and George thought he was deserving. The promotion included a bonus of $300. Chip had already spent a third of the bonus drinking with paniolos after driving 500-head of cattle down to the wharf. The celebration had him buying round after round at the Midnite Inn in Kaunakakai. A dozen horses had been tethered to the inn’s hitching post and the paniolos drank deep into the night. Wahines had crashed the party, with the newly crowned Miss Moloka’i doing the hula between tables. “Attagirl, Anna!” Joao’d yelped. Boy had slugged down a shot of okolehao while his brother danced with Anna. Lane Sato had been so soused he started singing the Japanese National Anthem off-key. George Cooke had been invited but he promised to cook steak dinner for Sophie in honor of their silver anniversary. Somehow and someway, after a night of steady drinking, Chipper had managed to ride Beauty home through the darkness.

                                      *                 *                 *

Julia had on her blue gingham dress with the white sash, Mary Jane’s, and a straw hat. She’d stowed a pair of denim breeches, Chipper’s old Army green work shirt, and hiking boots in the back seat of the Model T. She needed an emergency outfit in case they broke down and needed to help her man make a repair.

She rolled down her window as soon as they set out on their journey. The mauka air felt cool on her cheeks. She had on the same dress she’d worn to Sue’s wedding, one that fit tight around the waist. It had been apparent to most of the guests that Julia was in the family way. Catarina had tried avoiding her at the Sans Souci Hotel reception and it was only Kay who kept her company walking the beachfront. She’d felt like a creature lurking in her big sister’s shadow. The Wheel of Fortune had been spun, giving her the destiny of a loser.

*                 *                 *

After passing the Maupulehu Dairy, the color left Chipper’s face. He complained about a pounding headache and feeling nauseous.

Julia thought the smells of milk and churned butter had triggered him feeling sick, but she harbored little sympathy because of the way he’d carried on in Kaunakakai. “You went overboard last night,” she said.

Chipper grimaced. Passing locals waved but he didn’t wave back. He reached under the belt of his denims and pulled out a silver flask.

“Didn’t get enough last night?” Julia asked.

“Hair o’ the dog.”

“How much of that bonus do you have left?”

Chipper took a pull. “One-fifty.”

“We need things.”

“What things.”

“A new mattress, dressers, canned goods, kerosene, gas for this car.”

“That’s my bonus, not yours. I’ll spend it as I please.”

“I need to take a steamer and visit Kaimuki for Thanksgiving. I haven’t seen my sons in almost a year.”

“Missus Cooke pay you?”


“That’ll cover your passage.”

“Will you come?”

“ And leave my job as assistant manager? Not on your life.”

“It’s only for Thanksgiving.”

They flew around a slow curve and the tires squealed. The Model T leaned, causing Julia to grab the doorframe. They nearly struck a Chinese man pedaling a bicycle.

“Slow down, Chip!”

He tapped the brakes and took another pull.

The highway headed north. Giant papaya trees grew along the roadside. Julia wanted Chipper to pull over so she could pluck a few but she didn’t suggest it. He was in a mood. A rooster chased a loose hen along the shoulder. The mountains before them were massive and joined by gorges. Mist rolled over the upland meadows.

Chipper slowed. He spun the wheel right through a hairpin and they were heading east again. The brush was green and thick. Hau trees rose up beyond the brush, most wrapped in lilikoi vines. A white steeple rose into the clouds.

Julia pointed. “There!”

“Not blind yet,” Chipper told her. He had on his paniolo duds and hat. Julia had gotten so used to him dressing like a cowboy she had trouble imagining him in anything else. She’d boiled his work clothes and scrubbed them on the washboard with soapy lather. But no matter how hard she’d scrub, she could never get rid of the stink of cattle.

Chipper turned into a dirt lot. The row of parked autos included a red Templar Roadster, a white Kenworth Touring Sedan, and a sky-blue Milburn Coupe. There were a few beat-up trucks and a Model T missing its doors.

Saint Joseph’s was a skinning white building with a steeple that towered over the forest. A five-foot wall of stacked stones enclosed the Churchyard. Julia imagined Father Damien and his first congregation passing stones hand-to-hand. She figured Damien was the type of man whose followers would do anything for him. She saw crew cut lawns, hedges of pink and white oleander, gardenia, and trellises overflowing with purple bougainvillea. A shower tree shaded the graveyard.

Chipper parked beside a Cole 8 with chipped paint and rusted fenders. “We late?” he asked.

“As usual,” Julia replied. She got out. She heard parishioners singing “Amazing Grace.” The arched entrance door was held open with a cinder block. Parishioners sat in pews and a black-robed priest stood behind the pulpit.

Chip kicked a front tire with his boot. He was wearing a pair of French lace-up Kip boots instead of his Packers. The Packers were only for work. “Looks flat,” he told Julia. “Look flat to you?”

“No,” she replied.


“Everything looks flat when you have a hangover.”

Chipper leaned against the Ford’s fender and rolled a cigarette. “Bloody Catholics,” he mumbled.

Julia frowned. “What’s wrong with them?”

“Damn missionaries stole the aina.”

Julia didn’t appreciate his harsh tone. But he was right. Her grandmother had told her that the Great Mahele had driven Hawaiians off vast tracts of land because most didn’t know how to read and write English to fill out the claims. The haole missionaries and their offspring had no problem.

“Julia drifted into the graveyard. The plots were bordered by cinder block. Years of rain had washed away some of the names and dates in the cement headstones. White wooden crosses marked the older graves. Most had been buried with their heads facing west and their feet to the east.

Chipper wandered over smoking. “Why did we come?” he asked.

“To pray.”

“Waste of time.”

“I need God’s guidance. You coming?”

“I’ll wait out here.”

“Suit yourself.” Julia headed for the entrance and climbed the cement stairway. There was a knot of fear in her belly worrying that a friend or a relative from Honolulu was in attendance and might ask about her boys. She eased through the doorway into the white-walled Church. She smelled frankincense. There were two rows of pews and an ornate chandelier trimmed in gold hung from a white ceiling thirty feet high. The window frames were arched and a portrait of a young Damien hung mauka of the altar. The parishioners sang, “Christ Be Our Light.” The Filipino priest motioned for Julia to come forward and gestured at the front pew. She passed rows of local women in dresses and hats. They had their blue prayer books opened to the song but most watched her as she passed. She squeezed between Pearl Sato and a heavyset Portuguese woman. Lane sat on the other side of Pearl. He had a deep tan from outdoor work and winked when they made eye contact.

Julia gazed up at an altar adorned with red torch ginger and fern, arranged in a pair of white porcelain vases on either side of the marble Offertory table. A statue of Saint Joseph cradling the infant Jesus was on the makai side of the altar. Julia was impressed by the neat, compact nature of Saint Joseph’s and how the high ceiling made it seem spacious.

The sermon was about the Prodigal Son. The priest talked about forgiveness. The organ struck up the opening notes of “Michael Row The Boat Ashore.” The Church filled with song. An altar boy held out a basket attached to the end of a bamboo pole and worked the rows. Julia dropped in a silver dollar. She didn’t take Communion, feeling it had been too long since her last Confession. Communion wasn’t important to her. What was important was praying. She gazed up at the Cross of the crucified savior and begged Him for mercy for giving up her sons to chase after a man.

“Forgive me, dear Lord,” she whispered.

The Portuguese woman patted the top of Julia’s hand. “He will,” she said.

After the closing song and a final blessing, the priest said a handful of parishioners would be making the trek over to Kalaupapa after the service.

“We need a few volunteers to help our regulars carry supplies,” he said.

Pearl nudged Lane and he nodded. They raised their hands.

“Auwe,” said the priest. “Once again, the blessed Satos. My deepest gratitude. Anyone else? It will let our Kalaupapa brothers and sisters know they are first and foremost in our thoughts.”

“Ae,” came a man’s voice. “Count me in.”

Julia turned her head. She saw a muscular man in the back row with his hand raised. He had jet-black hair and kind eyes.

“Ben Keokeo,” the priest said. “Mahalo plenty for your service.”

“I bring Josephine too,” Ben said. “She stay my niece.”

“Your young niece is more than welcome. I wish I could go too but I must conduct Services at our Church in Kalua’aha. Please, one more volunteer?”

Julia remembered her outfit in the backseat of the Model T. Those boots had carried her up ridges and down ragged gulches on the west end. She raised her hand.

“Wonderful,” the priest told her. “Welcome to our parish, miss?”

“Julia,” she told him. “Miss Julia of Kauluwai. And you are?”

“Father Riel.”

                                      *                 *                 *

Out in the lot, Julia saw Chip sprawled out on the Ford’s hood. A cigarette smoldered between his lips. He blew smoke when she told him about her offer to help. She would carry a satchel filled with Kanemitsu pastries and tubes of toothpaste up the Damien Trail. She explained that it would be a ten-mile trek, one starting at Kamalo Gulch and crossing east to Kua Gulch and up to Kupa’la Range. From there, it would be a straight shot north to the trailhead down to the colony.

“Jesus,” Chipper said. “First, the Damien Trail, followed by those goddamn switchbacks?”

“Will you join me?”

He exhaled. “No.”

“The Satos volunteered.”

“Lane’s a born suckah.”

“You could help by carrying our cans of kerosene. Lanterns in Kalaupapa don’t work without it.”

“Those lepers can go to hell.”

“What’s gotten into you, Chip?”

“I dunno. Maybe this island’s changin’ me, for da worse.”

“ You used to be a man who cared about people less fortunate.”

Chipper took a drag. “Gotta big day ahead of me tomorrow, Julia. That hike down to Kalaupapa and up again means fifty-two switchbacks. It’ll kill me. It’ll kill you too.”

“I’ll survive.”

“Doubt I could do that hike today and drive one-thousand head off the plateau tomorrow.”

“Meet me topside at dusk?” she asked.

Chipper flicked his cigarette into the graveyard. “I’ll drive back to the Cookes’, eat somethin’, and head for the Lookout. I’ll be waitin’ a half-mile up from the trailhead.”

“Promise me something?”


“No more drinkin’.”

“I puked on a grave,” Chipper said, “and my skull’s poundin’. No booze for a week.”

“Make it a month.”

“Don’t push your luck, woman.”


Kirby Michael Wright won the 2018 Redwood Empire Mensa Award for  Creative Nonfiction. “Saint Joseph’s Church” is a chapter from his  forthcoming book about his grandmother’s life on the island of  Moloka’i. 

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A Malawian online literary magazine that publishes poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

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