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Persistence pays off in cross-team collaboration on Catholic saints and Hawaii’s leprosy colony

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A cross-team collaboration about a dozen years in the making pays off despite threats from a tropical storm and deadly wildfire, resulting in a tale of the widespread devotion to two Catholic saints who cared for patients banished to Hawaii’s leprosy colony.

Persistence is the one-word theme of this stunning project by Hawaii’s Kelleher and Religion’s Wardarski. Kelleher first came up with this project more than a decade ago, but her two prior attempts to pursue the story were foiled by budgetary and resource reasons. Earlier this year, Religion editors were thrilled to greenlight and fund such a fascinating project. But other hurdles lay ahead: They still needed to figure out how to get to the isolated Kalaupapa peninsula, access to which requires a personal invitation from a resident and a permit from the state health department.

Kelleher started by gaining the trust of two nuns who live there. During her first conversation, they were adamant it couldn’t happen. But as they continued to talk and she shared with them her vision and her knowledge of the place, they offered to sponsor the AP’s visit and helped secure permits. Next up was convincing state authorities, a process that took weeks but was necessary to book a flight on the only airline that flies to the peninsula. Then, they narrowly avoided having their plans scrapped by a tropical storm.

During the writing and editing process, a deadly wildfire broke out on Maui, requiring Kelleher to focus entirely on covering one of the biggest U.S. stories of the year. But she remained committed to the Kalaupapa story, juggling her daily reporting duties to get the enterprise done — even finding a way to incorporate the fire into the story.

Kelleher’s tenacity and the duo’s hard and sensitive work in the field offered members a beautiful and universal all-formats story and an intimate portrait of a place few people will ever go.

It was picked up by media nationwide and in Hawaii, as well as Catholic media. The story also resonated on social media, drawing engaged users on Instagram and Twitter. As Sister Barbara Jean Wajda, who lives on the peninsula, wrote, Kelleher and Wardarski “nailed it!” before commending Kelleher’s handiwork as a blessing and praised the project as “such a good service in your heartfelt presentation.”

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