Hawaiian leper community offers story of service

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She was devout. She was faithful. She was resilient. All she wanted to do was help. Afflicted with Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy), the aged Hawaiian woman lost use of both of her hands to the cruel, flesh-devouring disease but refused to allow it to become a stumbling block in her life. Enveloped in tropical breezes and ocean mist, she requested a wheelbarrow be tied to her wrists so she could help build a chapel, even though it was a chapel of a faith other than her own.

Such accounts are not uncommon in the the colony of Kalaupapa, on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. The once bustling colony has now become more of a ghost town in a tropical paradise. According to author Robert Louis Stevenson, it was “a prison fortified by nature.”

At its peak, Kalaupapa held more than 1,200 afflicted men, women and children who were exiled to the island prison because of their disease. Although the colony is known for its disease, it is also known for its ability to inspire unity.

BYU professor Fred E. Woods, who has spent seven years studying and co-producing a documentary of Kalaupapa, “The Soul of Kalaupapa,” said he loves the way the people built relationships and their constant positive attitudes.

“It’s been a wonderful way to use a historical model for what can and should be done in building bridges, looking for the common ground instead of battleground with people of other faiths,” Woods said. “The disease eradicated any type of boundary between culture and religion. There’s something special about experiencing the power of this unique, loving community.”

Kalaupapa residents became famous for their ability to be unified, despite coming from various backgrounds and beliefs. A perfect example of such ability to bridge gaps across cultural and societal barriers was Catholic priest, Father Damien, and LDS leader, Jonathan Napela. Arriving in the same year, Damien and Kanela had greater agendas in mind than to simply help their congregations.

According to Rosalynde Welch, a BYU graduate who researched some of the results of the colony, both Damien and Napela developed the sense of compassion for the outcast residents that motivated the unique unity-building atmosphere that prevailed in the community. Although neither of them had had the disease when they arrived on the island, both of their lives were claimed by the disease they had fought so vehemently against. Damien was officially given sainthood by the Catholic church in October 2009 for his efforts in Kalaupapa.

While the effects of Hansen’s disease were highly impactful during Kalaupapa’s peak years, the disease still influences victims and onlookers today.

Cassi Campbell, from Riverton, spent a few months in India helping people afflicted with Hansen’s disease and said it was hard to see how unfairly people are treated, but still the people were positive.

“I remember hand feeding a banana to a lady who was mostly blind, had stumps for feet and hands and had an open wound with bugs crawling out,” Campbell said. “What I admire most about [the people] is they are the happiest people on earth even though they practically have nothing. They were beaten down but managed to find a way to remain positive.”

Former LDS leader Matthew Cowley once visited the island and was equally awestruck by the incredible people.

“I went there [expecting] that I would be depressed,” Cowley said. “I left knowing 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.”

At its peak, Kalaupapa had more than 1,000 people in the colony, and more than 8,000 people were sent there between the years of 1866 until 1969, according to the National Park Service.

John Tayman, who visited the island in an attempt to recreate its history, said people were wrongly sent to the island for three reasons.

“The government [exiled the people] in the earnest belief that leprosy was rampantly contagious, that isolation was the only effective means of controlling the disease and that every person it banished actually suffered from the leprosy and was thus a hopeless case,” wrote Tayman. “On all three accounts, they were wrong.”

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