Moloka’i, Leper Colony and Father Damien

A friend of mine recently applied for a position in Hawai’i. As much of my formative years were on Oahu I, of course, asked where. She has several options but one of those was Moloka’i. When i think of Moloka’i, I think of the leper colony and Father Damian. Along with the rest of Hawaii’s long and rich history, school children learn about the leper colony and the selflessness of Father Damien. I can’t remember if we had to write a report or anything, but I remember the story quite well.

Father Damien a few weeks before his death.

When other peoples came to the Hawaiian island they brought diseases with them. It is the same story as  the mainland and the diseases brought to the native peoples there. The Hawaiians had no defense against such things as smallpox,  influenza and syphilis. It was Hansen’s disease or more commonly known as leprosy that caused a big concern.  Leprosy at the time was highly feared, it was thought to be incredibly contagious and in 1865, the Hawaiian Legislature passed and King Kamehameha V approved the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. They shipped the lepers off to Moloka’i.

Kalaupapa 1905



The actual colony was  in Kalaupapa and Kalawao located on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Moloka’i.  The village is divided from the rest of Moloka’i by a steep mountain ridge, and even now is only accessible by boat or a mule trail. About 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula from 1866 through 1969.
Originally the Hawaiian government sent them with supplies but they actual plan was for the colony to grow their own food and build their own buildings. it was not a penal colony, but the plans the Hawaiian government had for them was not feasible. The local environment and the effects of leprosy made growing their food and such impossible and the Hawaiian government could not afford to supply them nor provide health care.  It was dire circumstances for the colonists indeed and many fell into drinking and basic rabble rousing.

Path to Leper Colony

In comes Father Damien. Father Damien himself was an ordained Catholic priest. Even though most of us would love to go Moloka’i and relax, going to the leper colony in 1873 was considered to be a death sentence. Father Damien having become a priest by the skin of his teeth (he was not considered an educated man but because his brothers had taught him latin he was ordained), was one of four volunteers. In fact he was the first volunteer. He arrived as was presented to the 813 colonists living there. The first thing he did was build a church, he was after all a priest.
Damien,  however,did not confine his role to the tending of the lepers ols. he tended to their emotional needs and their physical need. He dressed their wounds as well as helped them build homes and gardens He held them when they were in pain. he established laws and established schools. Father Damien turned a leper colony into a community.


Although only 5% of humans can catch leprosy, Father Damien did. He put his foot into scalding water accidently and felt nothing. It was then he knew he had caught the disease. He stayed with his beloved colonists. He worked feverishly to finish up projects and build more houses until he became bedridden in March of 1889                                                                        and  in April of the same year he died of leprosy. 

Today there is still a leper colony on the island of Moloka’i even though there are no active cases of leprosy.  Those who continue to live in the settlement are patients who chose to stay after the segregation policy was lifted in 1969. Today, unless you are invited by one of  the residents who live there, the only way to see the colony is through an official tour.