and the Forgotten Leper Colony
The sandy beaches, tropical forests, and volcanic mountains of Hawaii provide a beautiful scene that often distracts from the darker periods of the island state’s history. The native population was ravaged by disease during its colonization, and among those illnesses was leprosy.
Cut off from the rest of the world by 1600-foot cliffs on one side and ocean on the other, Kalaupapa, Molokai, is a naturally beautiful prison. When Hansen’s Disease, historically known as leprosy, struck Hawaii in the mid-1800s along with other trade-borne eastern diseases, the government of Hawaii followed what was then common practice: they formed an isolated quarantine and moved the affected population there.
When Father Damien first arrived at the Kalawao leper settlement on the isolated Hawaiian island of Molokai in 1873, he caught the attention of the press almost immediately. As the first western religious missionary, Catholic or Protestant, to live within the leper settlement despite being free of the disease himself, Damien was something of a sensation. He was praised for his Catholic sense of self-sacrifice and even dubbed a “martyr,” particularly towards the end of his life when it became clear that he had contracted a severe and ultimately fatal form of Hansen’s disease.
On May 10, 1873, Damien arrived at Kalaupapa on a ship from Maui. With no place to go, Damien lived and slept outside under a pu hala (pandanus tree) in Kalawao near St. Philomena Church, which had been previously built by Sacred Hearts brother Victorin Bertrant in 1872. Damien had already encountered Hansen’s disease in the Kohala district in the late 1860s. Many of his afflicted parishioners there had been shipped off to Kalawao.
The village of Kalaupapa on Moloka’i is well known as the site of legally enforced exile for people in Hawaii with the disease of leprosy. Hawaii was the first nation in the world to institute such a treatment. Less well understood are the social influences that were seen to justify such a harsh treatment of so vulnerable a group of people. Race (and racism) was one influence, as was the fear of contagion. But equally significant was the social stigma produced by Western perceptions of the bodily differences of people with leprosy. Evidence from the Western press shows that the stigma produced by the perceived ‘loathsomeness’ of the symptoms of leprosy was a prime factor in the exile law. That stigma directly harmed not only people with leprosy, but also their friends and family who supported them.
Starting in 1866 with nine men and three women who were allegedly tossed overboard and told to swim for shore, the colony eventually housed more than 8000 people. Despite medical advances and the discovery of sulfone drugs that effectively eliminated the contagious effects of Hanson’s Disease in the 1940s, Kalaupapa remained a forced quarantine site until 1969, over a century after its formation.
The saving grace of the colony may have been the arrival of the 33-year-old Belgian missionary Father Damien de Veuster in 1873. De Veuster lived and worked in the colony, eventually contracting the disease himself. He described himself as “the happiest missionary in the world” before his death in 1889. His work at Kalaupapa has been recognized as a model of compassionate care, and there are statues of De Veuster in the US and Hawaiian Capitol buildings. He was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in October of 2009.
Jozef De Veuster was born in 1840 in the Belgian village of Tremelo. As a young man he joined the Congregation of the Sacred Fathers, taking the name Father Damien and following in the footsteps of his older brother, Pamfiel. When Pamfiel caught typhus as he was preparing to become a missionary in Hawaii, Damien went in his place.
At first he was happy in his new home, but gradually he became restless, wondering if he was making a genuine difference in the lives of the islanders. When he learned that the Kalawao leper colony on Molokai Island was in need of a resident priest, he immediately volunteered.
Father Damien not only convinced his superiors that he should go to the colony: he told them that he wanted to stay there permanently. His reasoning was that if people knew that he was only temporary there, they wouldn’t fully trust him. Permission was granted, and Father Damien traveled to the leper colony.
Keep in mind that this was during an era when leprosy was an incurable and terribly disfiguring disease. The government of the islands quarantined lepers in remote colonies, in fact, because of the fear that the contagion would spread. The colony on Molokai was particularly isolated, located on a strip of land separated from the mainland by a steep mountain ridge.
Robert Louis Stevenson had never met Damien personally. But he was a fellow invalid, terminally ill with tuberculosis, and felt a close affinity for the priest and his country despite their religious differences. Stevenson had travelled to Hawaii for his health in the summer of 1889 and visited the island of Molokai just after Damiens death. Interviewing both Damiens compatriots and Protestant critics, he found they build up the image of a man, with all his weaknesses, essentially heroic, and alive with rugged honesty, generosity, and mirth. Was he coarse? Dirty? Headstrong? Even bigoted? Stevenson admitted he probably was, but asserted that these faults didnt diminish his bravery or achievements. To Stevenson, Damiens failings simply made him a human, rather than superhuman, hero.
When Father Damien arrived, conditions in the colony were wretched. Crime was rampant; misery ubiquitous. During his 16-year tenure there, he worked tirelessly to improve the lives of its more than 600 residents.
In addition to his priestly duties at Kalaupapa, Damien bandaged the patients’ open wounds, washed their bodies and dug their graves. Utilizing his carpentry skills he built houses, churches, orphanages, coffins and even a water system.
Damien’s dogged work began to attract notice—and support for the colony. Princess Lydia Liliuokalani visited Kalaupapa, and later had her brother, King David Kalakaua, make Damien a Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua for transforming Kalawao and improving living conditions.
Damien spent nine years on the Big Island—studying the Hawaiian language, eating poi, building churches and baptizing new converts. He was a strong athlete who could climb rocky cliffs, trek through lava fields and scale 10 ravines to get to his parishioners.
While Damien was still on the Big Island, King Kamehameha V, approved An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy. The 1865 decree forcibly relocated Hawaii’s Hansen’s disease patients to Molokai’s Kalaupapa peninsula. Patients were simply dropped off and left to survive on their own in the desolate, lawless place.
Doctors now know that leprosy is actually not very contagious and only a small percentage of the population is susceptible to it.
But Father Damien was one of the unlucky ones. In 1884, after 12 years living in the colony, he began to experience the tell-tale sign of numbness in his feet.
Damien described the beginnings of the illness as an itching on the skin of his face and legs. Then, in the early 1880s, he began to experience a dull, throbbing pain in his left leg that eventually gave away to numbness. In the beginning of 1885, Damien accidentally scalded his foot with boiling water. He felt nothing. One of the earliest signs of Hansen’s disease is loss of sensation in the extremities, and Damien began to suspect the worst. Examination by doctors confirmed his suspicions: he had Hansen’s disease
It was a devastating diagnosis. Being diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii during the 19th and early 20thcenturies was akin to being charged with a crime. Those afflicted with Hansen’s disease were legally required to turn themselves over to state incarceration at the Molokai settlement, leaving behind their families, friends, property, and livelihoods. The government enforced occasional sweeps of the island to ferret out ill people who were unwilling to turn themselves in.
In the final years before his death, Damien received help from four unexpected sources: a Civil War soldier, a male nurse, a priest and a nun. Joseph Dutton, James Sinnett, Father Louis-Lambert Conrardy and Mother Marianne Cope, respectively, continued Damien’s work.
Gradually he came to share in the disfigurements and disabilities of his parishioners, finally succumbing to the disease in 1889 at the age of 49.
Damien died on April 15, 1889, in Kalawao. It was the beginning of Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter. He was buried in a simple grave outside St. Philomena Church in Kalawao.
In 1936 his remains were transferred to Leuven, which is near the village of his birth.
But Father Damien’s influence didn’t end with his death, for stories of the “leper priest” spread around the world. Mahatma Gandhi was one of many who took inspiration from his life, saying that Father Damien had a great influence on his own work among the outcasts in India.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Father Damien as a saint in a ceremony that was attended by native elders from the island of Molokai. He is popularly known as the patron of lepers and of all outcasts.
It is now known that Hansen’s disease is not a particularly contagious bacterial infection. About 95% of the population is naturally immune to Mycobacterium leprae, and most of the remaining 5% experience a relatively mild version of Hansen’s disease called tuberculoid leprosy. A small number of infected individuals, including Damien, are not so lucky. Due to a combination of genetic susceptibility and long-term exposure, possibly exacerbated by poor sanitation, Damien contracted the most serious form of Hansen’s disease: lepromatous. If left untreated, lepromatous Hansen’s disease causes large, insensate skin lesions eventually leading to extreme disfiguration of the extremities and face; nerve damage; breakdown of muscle tissue; and death.
As if the disease weren’t terrible enough, the isolation of Hansen’s disease patients produced even more anguish. A 1907 government pamphlet on the Molokai settlement remarks, “the separation which the disease causes in families and among friends, is its most distressing feature.” By blaming the disease for the “distressing” practice of incarcerating victims of Hansen’s disease, Hawaiian policymakers and medical leaders abdicated responsibility for their actions. It was not the disease that separated sufferers from their healthy families, it was the tight grip of social mores and the law.
Of course, the law did not affect the Hawaiian population equally. Even at the time of the Molokai settlement’s peak population (just over 1, 200 Hansen’s disease patients), only a tiny percentage was white. This disparity was most likely due to lower levels of genetic resistance among indigenous Hawaiians, compounded by poverty, as well as poor access to clean water, sanitation, and professional medical services. At the time, however, the high rate of infection among the native Hawaiian population was used to prop up colonialist bias and moral judgment.
Leprosy has had a moral dimension for almost as long as it has existed as a human disease. Like many illnesses, leprosy was often seen as a sign of divine displeasure and sinfulness. Throughout medieval and early modern times, leprosy was connected in particular to sexual deviancy and was even thought to be a venereal disease linked to syphilis.
While the medical field had largely discarded this theory by the end of the 19th century, the close association between sexual immorality and leprosy was still a widely held belief among the white population of Hawaii. Indigenous Hawaiians, with their freewheeling approach to sex, were clearly at fault for their own sickness. Even Damien drew the connection: “It is an admitted fact,” he wrote, “that the great majority, if not the total number of all pure natives, have the syphilitic blood, very well developed in their system…as we are now, it developed it self [sic] in some instance in the way of what we called leprosy.”
Damien was a man of his time, as this unflattering quote proves, but he was an extraordinary one. Others bemoaned the sorry state of leprous Hawaiians from a safe distance. Dr. Morrow’s interest in the Molokai settlement, for example, extended only as far as his scientific curiosity. But when someone asked Damien if he wanted to be cured of his leprosy, his answer was no: not if the price of the cure was abandoning Molokai and his work among his fellow sufferers. It was this very flawed, very human bravery—what some called recklessness—that made Damien a popular saint and martyr long before his canonization.
Becoming a saint in the Catholic Church isn’t easy. There is a series of steps that must be fulfilled—Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed and Saint. In 1995, Pope John Paul II beatified Damien, declared him “Blessed,” after church authorities were satisfied that Damien’s intercession cured a nun of intestinal illness in 1895.
The beatification step requires one attested miracle; canonization requires two. In 2008, Catholic authorities attributed the disappearance of Hawaii resident Audrey Toguchi’s incurable cancer to Damien’s intercession. Toguchi had travelled to Molokai 12 years before to pray at Damien’s grave.
“There were two requests I asked of our dear Lord and Father Damien,” Toguchi, 81, said. “First of all, please heal me and please find a good doctor who could take care of all these problems I had.” In 1999, Toguchi’s cancer completely disappeared in May, the same month as Damien’s feast day. It was this second miracle that would turn Molokai’s dedicated priest into Hawaii’s first canonized Catholic saint.
Father Damien’s canonization on Oct. 11, 2009, came 120 years after his death from leprosy—the same disease that took the lives of 8,000 people in Kalaupapa.
So why didn’t every remaining patient embrace the new freedom? Why didn’t everyone reconnect with loved ones and revel in the conveniences of civilization? Many of Kalaupapa’s patients forged paradoxical bonds with their isolated world. Many couldn’t bear to leave it. It was “the counterintuitive twinning of loneliness and community,” wrote The New York Times in 2008. “All that dying and all of that living.”
The National Park Service, which designated Kalaupapa a National Historical Park in 1980, must decide what will happen to the peninsula once the last patient dies. If things go the federal agency’s way, Kalaupapa would be fully opened up to tourists as outlined in a long-term plan that’s been under development for several years. The “preferred” proposal, which is one of four that have been outlined by the agency as options, would lift many of the current visitation regulations that have kept Kalaupapa so remote.
Visitation to the colony is strictly limited, and unless you are invited by a resident, tours must be arranged through Damien Tours or the Hawaii Department of Health. People without pre-arranged reservations will be denied access to the park.
As the remaining former patients near the end of their lives, Hawaiians are debating what is to be the fate of the park and settlement. Currently, only 100 visitors are allowed on the island per day, but there are proposals to expand that number, as there is considerable tourist interest in the island. Additionally, with the canonization of Saint Damien and Saint Marianne Cope, the island has become a possible pilgrimage site for Catholics from around the world. Preservation advocates argue, however, that visits should be limited to protect the historic sites.
Details on the history of the colony—known as Kalaupapa—for leprosy patients are murky: Fewer than 1,000 of the tombstones that span across the village’s various cemeteries are marked, many of them having succumbed to weather damage or invasive vegetation. A few have been nearly devoured by trees. But records suggest that at least 8,000 individuals were forcibly removed from their families and relocated to Kalaupapa over a century starting in the 1860s. Almost all of them were Native Hawaiian.
Sixteen of those patients, ages 73 to 92, are still alive. They include six who remain in Kalaupapa voluntarily as full-time residents, even though the quarantine was lifted in 1969—a decade after Hawaii became a state and more than two decades after drugs were developed to treat leprosy, today known as Hansen’s disease. The experience of being exiled was traumatic, as was the heartbreak of abandonment, for both the patients themselves and their family members. Kalaupapa is secluded by towering, treacherous sea cliffs from the rest of Molokai—an island with zero traffic lights that takes pride in its rural seclusion—and accessing it to this day remains difficult. Tourists typically arrive via mule.