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. Like many societies facing the disease, Hawaii responded by banishing those afflicted to an isolated community.

Here is a look at the legacy of Hawaii's leper colony.

Disease Comes to Hawaii

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As Hawaii was increasingly exposed to foreign workers when trade expanded in the 1800s, it also came into contact with new diseases. Venereal disease, typhoid, and smallpox left tens of thousands dead. In addition to these plagues, leprosy soon began spreading among the native population.

Leprosy and Government Response

Spirit of Damien

Along with leprosy, now known as Hansen's Disease, also came the illness's stigmas. Falsely believed to be highly infectious, in 1865 the Kingdom of Hawaii decided on a policy of mandatory quarantine. Victims of the disease were to be removed from their communities and isolated on one of the smaller islands.

Molokaʻi and the Kalaupapa Leper Settlement

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The island of Molokaʻi and the Kalaupapa Peninsula was chosen for the site of the new settlement, with the existing, uninfected natives moved to other islands. The villages of Kalawao, and later Kalaupapa, served as the first settlements.

The Role of the Catholic Church

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The settlements were administered by the Board of Health, with a number of Catholic orders actually providing care to patients. The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary was among the largest organizations to work at the colony.

Constructing the Colony

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While existing villages were adapted for the settlement, a number of new structures were set up for new community. For example, The Baldwin Home for Boys was overseen by Catholic Brothers of the Order of Saint Francis. An entire complex of structures once stood at the base of the cliffs, including the grotto pictured above.


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By 1890, there were a total of 1,100 people with leprosy living on Molokaʻi. During the period, a leprosy diagnosis meant the breaking up of a number of families, with patients cut off from their former communities on other islands.

Cut Off From Culture

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In Hawaiian culture, an individual's connection to the land, or 'aina, as well as their family, were considered extremely important, with ties going back centuries in many communities. The cultural losses caused by the quarantine are still felt in Hawaii to this day.

Life on the Colony

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Initially, those forced onto the island were not given sufficient provisions for food, as the government expected its new inhabitants to farm the land. Many had to share blankets and rations to survive in the earlier days. Soon, however, a community developed in the colony, and thousands of marriages took place over the decades.

Separated From Children


Children produced by the unions in the colony were immediately separated from their mothers and given to adoptive families, as the patients were still treated as dangerous pariahs. Many children never learned of their biological parents' pasts.

Father Damien

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Among the Catholic missionaries to serve in the colony, the most famous was Father Damien, a Belgian-born priest who traveled to Hawaii in 1864. In 1873, he was the first priest to volunteer to help treat patients on Molokaʻi.

Caring for the Afflicted

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While he served as a priest and helped dress the sores of many patients, Father Damien is credited with major improvements in the colony's community. He helped establish basic laws, improved a number of the island's structures, and constructed farms and schools. Although historians debate whether Damien's role was overemphasized in comparison to native workers, he is remembered as a pivotal figure in Hawaiian history. Damien contracted leprosy himself in 1884, and died in 1889. He was later recognized by the Kingdom of Hawaii with the Order of Kalākaua, and in 2009 was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI as Saint Damien of Molokai.

Marianne Cope and the Sisters of St Francis

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Another of the most famous Catholic volunteers at the colony was Marianne Cope, a German-born American nun who was a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse, New York. She relocated with six other Sisters to the colony in 1883, and took over many of Father Damien's duties after his death.

Caring for the Island's Women

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Cope was mostly involved with caring for the women in the colony, and took charge in the establishment of a new girls' school. She also was involved in the construction of the Baldwin Home for Boys. Cope died in 1918, due to natural causes, and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 as Saint Marianne Cope.

Remembering the Patients

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As modern treatments allowed for leprosy, or Hansen's Disease, to be cured, inhabitants on the island were given the option to leave, and in 1969, the colony was officially closed. Those who chose to stay were allowed to maintain the villages, with 16 of the original patients still living there. Thousands of graves mark the final resting places of most of the patients. In 1980, Kalaupapa National Historical Park was established to preserve the physical settings and structure of the settlement.

Future Plans for the Park

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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.