A group of Laie senior missionaries visited Molokai’s historical land of exile for patients suffering from Hansen’s Disease, known as leprosy, with the task of upkeeping the LDS Church’s historical sites and connecting with survivors.
Elder and Sister Decker, a senior couple from Iowa, said they became interested in Kalaupapa after hearing a devotional from Fred Woods and reading his book, “Kalaupapa: The Mormon Experience in an Exiled Community.”
Sister Decker said, “You would think it would be a gloom and doom kind of place. Over 8,000 people are buried there. It’s really not though. It’s hallowed ground. You feel the presence of those who had died there.”
Elder and Sister Coleman, a senior couple from Utah, said they became interested in the history of how it all began. Elder Coleman said in 1865, King Kamehameha V passed a ruling which banished those plagued with leprosy to hospitals and eventually to the peninsula of Kalaupapa.
He said, “[The king’s] last-ditch effort was to send anyone with leprosy, or any sign of it, into exile at Kalaupapa. They were sent there knowing that they weren’t [coming back].”
The area of Kalaupapa was a natural enclosure surrounded by some of the highest sea cliffs in the world, according to Sister Long, a senior missionary from Utah.
In order to minimize their contact with the diseased, those transporting patients from local hospitals would sometimes have the patients swim to shore if the break was too dangerous or if there weren’t any small harbor boats to meet them, according to Sister Long.
Elder Coleman said, “Many of them didn’t make it [to shore] because they were already quite sick from the disease.”
Years later, the exportation of the diseased to Kalaupapa dramatically increased after the attack on Pearl Harbor, said Long, because the hospital in Honolulu was afraid of another attack.
“They decided to send everyone to Kalaupapa,” said Long.
Long, a mother herself, said she could imagine how devastating the farewell must have been. “Families were able to come say goodbye but not touch [the patients],” she said.
Long said her missionary group arrived by special charter plane to the peninsula; the only other means of entering the colony is by ship or scaling down a steep cliff trail.
With guards at the top of the cliff trail, Elder Coleman said the exiles were effectively cut off from the rest of the world, having little to no contact at all from their family members.
At the beginning of the gathering of exiles, Sister Decker said people were “just dumped off and had to fend for themselves” until the arrival of a Catholic priest named Father Damien and a Latter-day Saint convert, Jonathon Napela.
“When [they] got there, they organized it into a little community,” she added. Damien and Napela eventually succumbed to the disease themselves after many years of faithful service; she said Damien had specific orders from his hierarchy to not touch or hug anyone, but he did just the opposite.
“When Father Damien died, his body was taken back and buried in Belgium. However, the Catholic hierarchy said he should really be in Kalaupapa,” she said. It’s what patients wanted too.
A portion of Father Damien’s body—his hand—made it back to Kalaupapa and lies buried there with thousands of other patients he helped throughout his life, she added.
What some would have considered to be a prison of desolation, Long said the patients made the most of their new circumstances and bonded based on their common disease. This is what the missionaries said transformed the area into an ohana community.
Long stated, “Since they weren’t able to have their families visit, they became each other’s family. They fulfilled each other’s spiritual needs as well. It didn’t matter what religion you were.” She said the patients at Kalaupapa, though having different religious backgrounds, found common ground in their need of faith.
Sister Kelson, a senior missionary from Oregon, said, “What happened on Sundays was everybody went to all of the churches. We went to all the churches, too.
“[At] the LDS chapel, it was just us and Sister Davis, and we just had a testimony meeting.” Sister Davis, who sponsored the group’s arrival, is the only LDS volunteer left at Kalaupapa, according to Sister Decker.
For the construction of the chapel, Sister Coleman said more non-members of faith participated in its construction than members, which was a testament to the massive amounts of communal service provided by the Kalaupapa patients. The LDS Church in Kalaupapa grew fast due in large part to the missionary efforts of Napela, who moved to the colony when his wife, Kitty, contracted the disease, said Elder Coleman.
“Harold B. Lee wrote in his journal that some of the people who wrote testimonies to him…said they would rather have the disease and have the gospel then to have never come there and learned about the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.
In the LDS chapel, Long said there were two pulpits; one for the visitors and one for the patients. She also said it was a similar situation with the bathrooms as well.
Although the chapel has fallen into disrepair, suffered severe termite damage and holds no scheduled meetings, Long said the church has not turned the property over to the National Park Service because they are worried it will not be properly maintained.
“They do have a group of LDS people who are assigned to go take care of the properties,” she said. Volunteers at the Polynesian Cultural Center are carving new doors to replace the old ones on the chapel.
The Secret Arrival of the Hokulea
Before its momentous return to Waikiki from its three-year expedition at sea, the voyaging canoe, Hokulea, made an unpublicized visit to Kalaupapa at the same time the missionaries were there.
Sister Decker explained, “We were at the right place at the right time. No one else had that experience but us.” She said the group of missionaries were invited by the community to help make leis for their arrival. When the canoe came, she said those on board exchanged chants with their hosts on shore.
Long said, “They didn’t tell the press. We didn’t even know about it. I guess the crew needed their rest.”
Upon their arrival, Kelson said she was amazed at how the crew prepared and served dinner for those in the community. “It’s usually the other way around, especially after being gone at sea for that long,” she said.
The crew also participated in a local talent show hosted by volunteers and residents of Kalaupapa and were treated to a local luau.
Sister Coleman said of their visit, “We had a few people greeting them, as opposed to the thousands of people in Honolulu. So it was pretty personal.”
Life in Kalaupapa Today
Only six patient survivors call Kalaupapa their home today, according to CNN. Elder Decker said, “When they found out the people weren’t contagious anymore, they allowed them to go back in 1965.
“But some of the ones that were there for a long time chose not to go back. Some of those people are still there today. They could leave, but they choose not to. It is their home now.”
Kalaupapa has one general store, according to Elder Decker, where residents are allowed one soda and one candy bar or bag of chips. He said these supplies are extremely limited as the entire peninsula relies on shipments of food and gas.
He said, “One of the sisters [at the store] was a patient. She wouldn’t take our money. She said, ‘I want to have the blessings.’” Sister Long also said the owner of the car they were borrowing didn’t allow them to fill it with gas after they were done, as she said it would have “robbed her of her blessings.”
Sister Decker added, “That’s the caliber of people. They are just giving people.”
In terms of visiting the colony, Elder Coleman said unauthorized groups of visitors are not permitted for long stays, only those who have been sponsored by a worker can stay past tour group visiting hours.
“Currently, the National Park Service will only allow space for 100 permits a day at Kalaupapa,” he said. Elder Decker added, “Most groups can only stay for four hours, and then they have to go back up the cliff.”
Elder Decker and the other senior missionaries were allowed to stay for five days.
Kelson concluded, “It just gets in your soul. You hear about it and you want to go over there and feel it and experience that. We got to do exactly that.”