Sixteen hundred feet beneath the verdant sea cliffs of Molokai — the highest in North America — at the tip of a wildly beautiful cove pummeled by an aquamarine surf, lies a little piece of heaven that for a century doubled as a kind of hell.
Its inhabitants were lepers, and beginning in 1866, this place, Kalaupapa, was their home and their prison. They were exiled by decree of the king after foreigners infected Hawaiians — who had no acquired immunity — with a disease characterized by a fearsome constellation of symptoms.
Leprosy — now known as Hansen’s disease — attacks the nerves. It causes skin sores, eye injury, respiratory difficulties, resorption of bone and cartilage and loss of feeling in the extremities. As it progresses, the disease creates the disfigurement for which it is known, and ultimately kills through the vector of other, opportunistic ailments that take advantage of the body’s weakened condition.
Historically, leprosy came with a devastating emotional cost, as well, because — like AIDS in modern times — it carried a powerful stigma: Many believed the mysterious disease was God’s punishment for being physically and spiritually unclean. Yet it was thought to be highly contagious, and no one really knew what caused it.
By the mid 1800s, Hawaiians were suffering disfigurement and death at an alarming rate. Police and district judges were authorized to round up “suspects,” many of whom were later interned at Kalaupapa, a flat, leaf-shaped peninsula ringed by towering cliffs.
The policy tore families asunder. While some of the healthy voluntarily joined loved ones in exile as kokua, or helpers, more disowned relatives with leprosy. Or the lepers disowned them, fearful that family members, too, would be outcast as potential carriers.
First hospitalized in Honolulu, the most advanced cases — and sometimes those who had simply broken the hospital’s strict regulations — were shipped to Kalaupapa. Few got more than a week’s notice to put their affairs in order and say a final farewell to loved ones, though physical contact was forbidden. Then they were taken by steamer to the leper colony, and left.
We arrived via a different route, picking our way down a rocky 3-mile trail that zigzags over 26 switchbacks; other tourists ride sure-footed mules down the rugged course.
Access is limited, in part to guard the privacy of the handful of aging residents — the youngest around 80, the oldest about 93 — who still live at Kalaupapa. Once their jail, the settlement is still their home; they’ve stayed, though forced exile ended in 1949 and the segregation decree was lifted 20 years later. (Hansen’s disease has been effectively treated by a sulfone drug since the 1940s.)
Near its base, the trail rings the cove like a necklace, providing a panoramic view of the colony’s setting.
Most of the simple wooden structures have only historical significance now: a social hall where the well-enough sick could gather, quarters for doctors and nurses who once tended residents. A post office and grocery store remain open; a craft shop caters to the trickle of tourists. Churches are well-represented. One commemorates with a bronze plaque its founding members, “thrust out by mankind, these 12 women and 23 men, crying aloud to God.”
Their voices were heard by a heartening number of men and women. Among them were Joseph Dutton, a Civil War veteran and reformed drunkard who arrived when he was 43, seeking a life of penance and service; he never left. Mother Marianne Cope and six other nuns from a New York order answered the Hawaiian king’s plea to care for lepers after other religious communities refused; she served as a tireless advocate until her death on Molokai 35 years later.
Cope also helped care for the most famous of the lepers’ benefactors: Belgian priest Joseph DeVeuster — better known as Father Damien — who at 33 came to live with the pariahs. He organized efforts to build schools, houses and roads, but he was no hands-off administrator. Damien ate with the lepers, dressed their wounds, made their coffins and dug their graves. He had holes bored in the plank flooring beneath the church pews in which the lepers sat; in these, the stems of large leaves were arranged as funnels to catch and drain the saliva they could no longer contain in disfigured mouths. And 16 years after he arrived, he died of their disease.
We thought of that, as we hiked up and out of Kalaupapa: What it means to be brave, to act with ultimate compassion, to live to the edges of one’s own life and beyond with that kind of heart, that kind of courage. How good people can be.
And we thought of the other, too, of the cruelty people inflict: what we do to each other in fear and ignorance. How the fabric of our shared humanity is so quickly and easily rent, and how difficult it is to repair: the immense time and tenderness necessary to bind the wounds we cause, if reparation is even possible.
We could hear it, still, as we climbed: our guide singing in the church beside Father Damien’s memorial and the mass grave where the bodies of some of the 8,000 people who died at Kaluapapa lie. The church where the holes in those broad wooden planks caught the saliva of lepers as they sang hymns of hope.
Sound, said our guide, is a medium on which spirit travels. The spirits of the outcast, and those who came to live and die with them.
Our anxious response to COVID-19 prompts me to rerun this reflection from 2017. We needn’t be as heroic as Father Damien or Mother Cope to remember we are people first, not potential disease vectors, and that fear and self-interest are more dangerous to our ultimate well-being than any virus.