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

A particularly memorable multi-faith service occurred soon after a cross was erected at the Kauhako Crater, shortly before Easter of 1948. One author wrote of the assemblage of different Christian faiths: “The two Mormon elders [assigned to the area] assisted Pastor Alice in the service; many Roman Catholics were present. . . . The people sang as never before, their joyous message carrying on the wind even to the sufferers in the hospital at Kalaupapa.”

Perhaps the most impressive piece of Kalaupapa’s interfaith collaborative work was in the construction of various places of worship. Members of all faiths throughout the settlement joined in 1966 to help restore the Protestant Siloama Chapel at the time of the centennial anniversary of the incorporation of the Protestant church at the settlement. Said Lelepali of the occasion, “We had the Protestants, we had the Catholics, we had the Mormons all chip in to build this church. . . . They wanted to help this church. . . . When you came here, you could feel the spirit of love. It was special working with them. . . . It was just beautiful.”

When asked on another occasion if this same support occurred when a 20th century Catholic church was erected in the settlement, he observed that everyone joined in “to help raise some funds for the church. . . . Everybody would help out, and that’s how it was in Kalaupapa. That’s what’s so different about Kalaupapa. . . . When somebody needs help, everybody’s there.” Finally, this patient explained, “This is our family. . . . I don’t care what religion. . . . That’s how we felt. When they need help, we [are] there.”

This same spirit of love and collaboration in building the Catholic and Protestant churches was also strongly evident in 1965 when a new LDS chapel was constructed to replace an older chapel, which had deteriorated. When the building was dedicated at the close of the year and the work hours were tallied, it was discovered that those of other faiths had actually donated more hours in its construction than Latter-day Saints had. “All worked hard, and some of those with disabilities had their hands wired to the wheelbarrows that they might do their share.” The entire settlement joined in a celebration of joy knowing that their LDS friends had a new chapel to worship in.


Photo courtesy of Damien Collection Leuven

The charity and uncommon service rendered at Kalaupapa is a reminder of the importance of building bridges instead of barriers, finding common ground instead of battleground, and valuing one another regardless of differences.

Elder Orson F. Whitney noted in a general conference address that God “is using not only his covenant people, but other peoples as well, to consummate a work, stupendous, magnificent, and altogether too arduous for this little handful of Saints to accomplish by and of themselves. . . . Other good and great men have been sent by the Almighty into many nations to give them . . . that portion of truth that they were able to receive and wisely use.”

The story of Kalaupapa also reminds us to look outside our religious circles into the faces of those of other faiths and to seek after the greatest spiritual gift: charity. This unique settlement of years past urges us today to apply the ever-pertinent Latin maxim: “In the essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

Kalaupapa translated means “flat plain” or “flat leaf,” and coming to Kalaupapa was surely a leveling experience for all—a way to cross the boundaries of professed belief and ethnicity into a larger realm of endless brotherhood and compassion. For it was here that religious denominations and cultural divides dissolved; it was here that the love of God was manifested in a magnificent way.

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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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