By: J. Stapley - January 23, 2007

Beneath the highest sea cliffs in the world lay the remnants of Kalaupapa. A handful remain of the thousands that once had no choice to leave. Shortly after the 1866 establishment of the settlement on the shores of Moloka’i, the first Mormons came. Lepers.

Leprosy, now typically called Hansen’s disease, causes fear for the stories of disfigurement and suffering. For over 100 years, those who suffered from the disease where forcibly contained in Kalaupapa and its twin Kalawao. The stories of human tragedy are heart breaking.

The mode of transmission of Hansen’s disease remains uncertain, but most investigators think that the causative bacterium is spread from person to person in respiratory droplets. Historically, it was thought that any contact could transmit the disease. One treatment was developed in the 1940’s, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that an effective therapy became available.

One missionary journal describes administering to one individual who had been released to the hospital:

16 February 1956
Elder Childs & I administered to a Mrs (Sister) Malo at St. Francis Hospital today. She is a leper, and is undergoing surgery tomorrow morning. She is particularly eaten away, but has great faith. We took all rings, etc. off, took off our coats, and put on a white robe. The only things showing were our hands, which we washed twice afterward.

The devotion of the Mormon inhabitants, especially the recent converts is moving. After meeting with the Mission president in April 1957, several of the new converts confessed “their gratitude for being lepers for it was in the colony that they first heard the gospel.”

After the theatrical release of Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments in 1956, the mission asked President McKay if he would ask the director if they could have a copy to show at the colony. Mr. DeMille furnished his personal 35 mm copy and equipment to present it. One missionary alumnus described the experience:

The result was overwhelming! During the first showing, every eye, whether whole or blind, was full of tears. Every person in the colony was given the opportunity to see it as many times as they wished while it was on the Island, and there was a full house for each showing It was shown on the Island for a week, after which the film and all of the equipment was returned to Mr. DeMille. President Haycock came with the film and equipment when it first arrived, but did not stay past the first day.

The forced quarantine of people at Kalaupapa ended in 1969. The settlement is now a National Historic Park and some have chosen to stay.


  1. Fascinating post. I’d heard of the leper colonly at Kalaupapa before, and realized it played an interesting role in LDS history. Interestingly, it was a source of inspiration for Philipino LDS Church member Lino Brocka, perhaps the first successful LDS film director, who used his missionary experiences at the colony for one of his films.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — 1/23/2007 @ 8:11 am

  2. Thanks for the heads-up Kent. Brocka looks like a very interesting individual and I would be interested in tracking down a copy of that film.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 1/23/2007 @ 11:24 am

  3. Kalaupapa is hard to avoid as a subject here at BYUH. There have been a number of lectures, devotionals, and other activities devoted to it, especially over the last year, which included the school’s 50 year jubilee celebration. One of the devotionals, that talks about Jonathan Napela, the first Hawiian of Ali’i rank to join the church and a victim of leprosy (though it is hard to call a man a victim who spent so mcuh of his time helping others, even as he was destroyed by the disease) can be found here. He actually caught the disease after he went to the colony so as not to be separated from his wife, who did have the disease.There is a lot to be found about both napela and Father Damien, a catholic hero of sorts involved with the colony. A short biography of Damien can be found here. When so many lectures were being given, somewhat coincidentally, by people of both faiths, it was a great opportunity to build a sense of inter-faith understanding. The Lord’s purposes are often greater than we know.
    A google search of either “Father Damien” or Jonathan Napela” turns up a lot of stirring info.

    Comment by Steve H — 1/23/2007 @ 3:30 pm

  4. My dad was a missionary in Hawaii from 1968-1970, and served on Molokai. He and his companion made three trips to Kalaupapa to minister to the eight LDS patients that were there. He was really moved and humbled by the faith of the people he met there.

    He’d love to go back and visit the park someday.

    Comment by Melissa — 1/24/2007 @ 4:32 pm

  5. i’m SO glad i caught this on a sideblog! we lived in hawai’i for a few years and had the chance to visit moloka’i. our friends own the moloka’i mule rides (hey! they’re lds!) that provide one of few ways down to kalaupapa (other ways are ship, plane, or hiking the VERY steep cliffs). we were able to visit kalaupapa and take a tour.

    the trip down and up the cliffs was incredible and i recommend it to anyone who visits the islands… even if you only dayhop to moloka’i. but kalaupapa? wow. it was haunting and triumphant and devastating and fascinating, all rolled into one. it was amazing to see how people overcame to survive and lead happy lives, but it was just heart-breaking to realize all they had been through. there were many points where i had to turn away from the group because i couldn’t keep tears out of my eyes.

    there are still members of the church in kalaupapa… i think less than a half dozen? when we spoke with the catholic priest who resides there (he has the largest congregation, with the protestants also numbering in the half dozen, or so), he joked that there was NO way to skip lds services on kalauapapa. when the young male missionaries were on moloka’i, they used to regularly take the mules down to visit the members. they’ve since pulled the elders out and only had one senior couple there, last i knew of. i knew the couple there, at one point, and while they had made one trip down, it wasn’t something they could physically do repeatedly.

    for further reading, i highly recommend “holy man” by gavan daws. what an amazing man father damien was…

    Comment by makakona — 2/1/2007 @ 3:36 am

  6. Cool story. That must be a very interesting feeling – a feeling of gratitude for catching a disease because it leads to hearing the gospel.

    Comment by danithew — 2/9/2007 @ 1:56 pm

  7. Beautifully written, and a lot more than I had known about the colony. I wonder if the eagerness of so many Relief Societies (including my ward’s) to knit leper bandages is because we’ve heard a little about Kalaupapa and the faith of those living there?

    Comment by Ardis — 2/9/2007 @ 7:21 pm

  8. Hansen’s disease tore families apart. Kids were taken away from their parents and parents away from their kids, never to be seen again. My grandfather, great uncle and great grandfather were sent to Kalaupapa. The name of Hansen’s in Hawaiian is Ma’i Ho’oka’awale translated The Separating Sickness.

    There are 8,000 graves there but only 1,300 are marked. My great grandfather is in one of the unmarked graves. My great uncle was Kalaupapa branch president in the 1940s.

    Much of the suffering in the early years came from lack of food, shelter and medical care. Basically they were sent there to die. The important thing to remember is that even though some folks have a disease, they should still be treated with dignity and respect.

    Comment by Kilika — 5/14/2007 @ 1:23 am

  9. Kilika, thank you for you comment, which has added a wonderful perspective.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 5/14/2007 @ 11:27 am

  10. I saw something just recently somewhere describing an apostolic visit to Hawaii when it was desert-y and lacking potable drinking water. The apostle (or missionary) told the people to remain faithful, they were sent there for a reason and water would be provided. And it was. I didn’t realize Mormons had so much to do with settling Hawaii.

    Comment by annegb — 5/30/2007 @ 4:41 pm

  11. Many years ago I wandered down the cliffs of Kalaupapa, against the advice of warning signs for all visitors to return and go away. I met a lovely LDS woman there called Elizabeth Bell. She was lovely and shared some lunch with me during her break from the Post Office. About 2 years later I returned (with permission) and had an extensive look around. I swam in the beautiful waters on a stony beach. Elizabeth and her friend Lucy showed me around, and I even slept in the mission home. This is something that I will never forget.

    Comment by Grant — 12/27/2009 @ 4:26 am

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