"They Called It Hell, and We Called It Heaven": The Story of Exiled Mormons in Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement

To most of us, leprosy is a disease that only existed in Biblical times and meant misery and exile. But to Latter-day Saints in a small Hawaiian leprosy settlement known as Kalaupapa, the disease meant a community of unity, coupled with a faith in God that neither they nor their neighbors would trade for anything.

One Catholic priest, while reflecting on his life’s experiences, remarked that the two holiest places on earth were Jerusalem and Kalaupapa. This bold statement resonates with the thousands of people from a variety of faiths who have been deeply touched by Kalaupapa—a peaceful settlement lying quietly on a four-mile peninsula beneath the sheer, breathtaking cliffs on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. This smooth, beautiful peninsula seems appropriate to symbolize the universal love of a Supreme Being that embraces all four corners of the earth. Structures that have stood in this region for over a century include places of worship for Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, and Latter-day Saints. All these religions worked together to make Kalaupapa a place of unconditional love—something desperately needed in our world today.

It was over a decade ago when I first encountered this sacred space where a community of exiled sufferers of leprosy once found solace. Reflecting back on it, it seems I experienced something similar to what Elder Matthew Cowley felt. (Elder Cowley was an apostle who then presided over the Pacific region.)

After Elder Cowley’s visit to Kalaupapa in the mid-20th century, he 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.” Elder Cowley added, “I [left] . . . appreciating my friends, loving my enemies, worshiping God, and with a heart purged of all pettiness. This is a transformation for me, and for it, I am indebted to the . . . Saints of Kalaupapa.”


Photo courtesy of the LDS Church History Library

In January of 1865, the Hawaiian monarchy’s deep concern over the threat of leprosy, now known in the medical field as “Hansen’s disease,” caused King Kamehameha V to sign a document intended to prevent the spread of this malicious malady. Therefore, the Makanalua Peninsula (later commonly known as Kalaupapa), situated on the northern shores of Molokai, became a unique fortress with natural borders for victims who were viewed as inmates. As the new year dawned, a dozen patients were exiled there, the first of over 8,000 who would be separated from loved ones from 1866 to 1969.

In 1873, two ecclesiastical leaders from different faiths came to the Kalaupapa peninsula. The first was a Latter-day Saint named Jonathan Hawaii Napela. The other was a Belgian Catholic priest, Joseph De Veuster, known better as Father Damien.

Napela had become a district judge in 1848 on Maui and converted to the Church four years later at age 39. He was a tremendous aid to early LDS missionary work on the Hawaiian Islands, where he assisted Elder George Q. Cannon with the translation of the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian. But one of his greatest legacies was his example as a devoted husband.

When his wife, Kitty, contracted the disease, Napela wanted to remain with her. Consequently, he wrote a letter in his native Hawaiian language, pleading with the Board of Health to allow him to remain with her at the settlement. He wrote, “I vowed before God to care for my wife in health and sickness. . . . I want to be with my wife . . . but with this disease, it will quickly shorten her life. Such is the reason for this petition.” His heartfelt petition was granted. He remained with her for the duration of his life in Kalaupapa (1873–1879), where he was also the acting branch president. Sadly, Napela also contracted the disease and died about two weeks before his wife did.

But Napela was not the only religious figure watching after those in the settlement. Father Damien arrived at the Kalaupapa peninsula about the same time Napela did, though he outlived his LDS counterpart by a decade. This loving, fearless man had an attitude of selfless service best captured by his own words: “Suppose the disease does get my body. God will give me another one on Resurrection Day.” From the day of his arrival in 1873 until his death at age 49 in 1889, his concern was for all, regardless of race or religion.

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Learn more with Fred E. Woods' new book, Kalaupapa: The Mormon Experience in an Exiled Community.

In the 19th century, Hansen's disease, more commonly known as leprosy, spread through the Hawaiian Islands, causing the king of Hawaii to sanction an act that exiled all people afflicted with this disease to Kalaupapa, a peninsula on the island of Moloka'i. Kalaupapa was separated from the rest of the world, with sheer cliffs on one side, the ocean on the other three, and limited contact with anyone, even loved ones. In Kalaupapa, the author delves into the untold history of Kalaupapa and its inhabitants, recounting the patients' experience on the peninsula and emphasizing the Mormon connection to it. By so doing, he brings to light inspiring stories of love, courage, sacrifice, and community.

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