Kalaupapa: A Thriving, Resilient Community


From 1866 to 1969, approximately 8,000 individuals were sent to Kalaupapa after contracting Hansen’s disease. They were teachers, singers, farmers, lawyers, paniolos, composers, veterans, artists and aliʻi – people with hopes and dreams, talents and skills. People with names. Together, they founded a resilient community.

Kalaupapa was established in 1866, and 142 people arrived that first year. They built a church that they named Siloama after the famous pools in Jerusalem. In the early days, the patients exiled at Kalaupapa experienced tremendous hardship, one of the most profound being inadequate food and supplies and the lack of medical care – a trying situation that continued through the 1870s.

Kalaupapa did, however, have outstanding leaders including people like William Humphreys Uweleʻaleʻa, Ambrose Kanewaliʻi Hutchison, James Paiaina, J. D. Kahauliko, J. H. Hao, D. W. Puhaula, Peter Kaʻeo, and Jonathan Napela (who was not sick but chose to accompany his wife to Kalaupapa). Despite the early challenges, over the next two decades, through hard work and persistent advocacy, a vibrant community began to take shape.

Father Damien arrived in 1873 becoming a beloved member of the community. A story is told about a group of boys waking the entire settlement early one morning. It was a holiday, and the boys were marching around playing tin flutes and drums with great enthusiasm. When they passed Father Damien’s house, the amused priest went to his lanai and yelled, “Poʻe keiki kolohe!” The boys stopped playing and Pākē, the choir’s lead soloist, began singing, moving everyone to tears.

By the late 1880s, Kalaupapa had 350 cottages, two Catholic churches, two Protestant churches, an LDS chapel, several stores, 12 hospital buildings, a physician’s house, and community gardens. People there lived active lives – they worked, played and fell in love in Kalaupapa. But painful forced family separations continued.

Mother Marianne Cope and two Catholic sisters arrived in 1888 to run Bishop Home, which was financed by Charles Reed Bishop, the widower of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Bishop wanted to provide a safe space for the girls and women who were sent to Kalaupapa alone. For decades, Bishop Home was a place of music, laughter, sewing, plays, and tennis.

It was also in 1888 that Lizzie Kapoli Kamakau was sent to Kalaupapa. She was an exemplary composer who collaborated with Queen Liliʻuokalani and Princess Likelike on songs such as Liko Pua Lehua and A He Lau Makani.

Indeed, music played a huge part in community-building and Kalaupapa was home to many brilliant musicians, composers, and chanters throughout its 156-year history. Some of Kalaupapa’s contemporary musicians and composers include Henry Naleielua, Ernest Kala, Bernard Punikaiʻa, Makia Malo, Sammy Kuahine and Helen Keao.

Over the years, aliʻi such as King Kalākaua, Queen Kapiʻolani, Queen Liliʻuokalani and Princess Kaʻiulani visited Kalaupapa, assuring the residents that they were not forgotten.

Kalaupapa residents were also politically active. Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea continued to be celebrated there (despite the holiday being banned by the Republic of Hawaiʻi). Thomas Nakanaela authored Ka Buke Moʻolelo o Hon. Robert Wilikoki, one of the best sources for information about the 1895 nationalist uprising. Over 700 Kalaupapa residents signed the Kūʻē Petitions protesting annexation.

By the early 20th century, Kalaupapa flourished with debate clubs, choirs, glee clubs, horse racing, bands, an athletic association, and three baseball teams. In 1905, it was organized as Kalawao County. It was, and still is, the only county in the world that is predominately Native Hawaiian.

A sympathetic and generous community, Kalaupapa residents donated to various humanitarian causes, including to victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and war orphans.

In 1946, a cure for Hansen’s disease, promin, became available in Hawaiʻi. In 1949, a residential treatment center, Hale Mōhalu, was opened in Pearl City and with that, the policy of mandatory isolation at Kalaupapa ended.

Over the next 20 years, only 40 new people were admitted to Kalaupapa, all of whom requested to transfer there from Hale Mōhalu. In 1969, the law changed, abolishing the forced isolation of people diagnosed with Hansen’s disease. Thanks to medical advances, people could now be safely treated at home. Nevertheless, public ignorance persisted, and many residents opted to continue living lives of dignity and acceptance at Kalaupapa.

In 1988, Olivia Robello Breitha became the only resident to write an autobiography: Olivia – My Life of Exile in Kalaupapa.

The future of Kalaupapa is uncertain, but the residents should have a say in decision-making. Valerie Monson, former executive director of Ka ʻOhana o Kalaupapa said, “The people of Kalaupapa – throughout its history – have been some of our finest citizens who could have wallowed in what happened to them, but instead arose and triumphed over so many obstacles.”

Author’s note: thanks to Valerie Monson, I discovered that my grandmother’s youngest sister, Mary Kekai Tripp, was exiled to Kalaupapa. My family did not speak about her, perhaps out of grief or pain. But I am grateful to know that she was loved, got married, and lived in a caring community. When we look at Kalaupapa, we should see it as a sacred place where hoʻomau was embodied.